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Archive for January, 2011

January 22nd, 2011 - To the North

I checked very connection, every bolt, every cable, but I just wasn’t ready to push the start button. I lit up a cigarette and stared at the bike for the longest time. It was 45 days since the last time I road this bike, and 44 days that I was stuck in the village of Otamendi in Argentina. The whole world went above and beyond to get a new engine to me down here, so it felt surreal to be only a push of a thumb away from freedom. That’s how prisoners must feel I suppose.

When the engine got here, I immediately got to work and retracted a million drywall screws out of the crate to free the engine. It was so well packed (thanks to Jared’s hard work) that the airliner could have just air dropped it at the farm, and it would have survived. By the time I got the engine out it started to rain, and it didn’t stop for the next two days. But I could care less if concrete blocks came down from the sky let alone a little water. It was like Christmas. There was a complete motor, lots of shiny new parts from Z1 Enterprises, and a replacement final drive to swap out the battered leaky unit. With the help of Juan (my very helpful neighbor at the farm) we pushed and shoved the entire block on the frame, and fastened it tight.

For the next two days I scavenged everything I could from the old motor that was in a better shape, and installed it on the new motor. I swapped the drive shaft, final drive, stator cover, ignition cover, bolts and even the oil pan with all new seals and gaskets, and proceeded to time the engine, adjust the valves, replace the air filter, and installed new plug wires on the coils. Then I fired up the soldering iron and soldered every connection. It looked greasy and dirty, but beautiful.

It was time. I poured a gallon of fresh gas in the tank, filled up the crankcase, final drive and transmission with oil, flipped the petcock to prime and pulled the choke. Finally I pushed the start button. The motor turned a few times and it roared to life. My eyes were wet and I couldn’t believe that I was free at last. Hearing the perfect sound of the new machine was like a lullaby, and I listened to it like a good song. The job was done. I turned off the engine and fell asleep as the skies outside poured their hearts out with rain.

I woke up the next day to take out my baby for a ride. As I pulled out of the driveway the front tire slipped on the mud and I went down. I was baffled. A deep slippery mud covered the driveway, and I hit the ground no more than twenty feet from my room. I picked up the bike and mounted again. Mud or no mud, I was going out for a ride. The road from the farm to Otamendi is 3km long, and the rains turned the soft-dirt road to chocolate pudding with standing water in every pothole. In the first 500 feet I fell three times and I finally gave up. The tires were covered with sticky mud to the point that the front fender was scarping on the mud. With much difficulty, I picked up the bike for the last time, slipping and sliding in the process, and headed back to the farm defeated.

There was nothing I could do but to wait for the sun to dry up the road. I had better luck the next day and I finally hit the tarmac with no fall. I took the bike straight to a carwash and for six dollars; two guys washed the bike for 45 minutes. (I needed it clean so I could spot oil leaks.) Then I went out for a 100 miles test run. It ran great, and to my delight, there was no oil leak, except a little sip from the clutch shaft seal which wasn’t a big deal. (I’ll replace it in Buenos Aires). I checked the spark plugs, and they were all black and whitish with no excessive carbon, no caked white stuff, and no oil. She was ready to roll. I took my time to organize my stuff, fix little things here and there, and wash my cloths before getting back on the road. I said my goodbyes to Tati and his family in Mar del Plata, and threw a thank you BBQ party for Juan’s family which helped me immensely during my stay at the farm.

I’m leaving tomorrow morning for Buenos Aires. The route is set to go north for Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, and in western Peru load the bike on a dinghy and float the whole length of the Amazon River to the Atlantic Ocean. From there finishing up Venezuela, Surinam, New Guinea… and finally jump the big pond for Africa.

I can never thank those who helped me get back on the road enough. My gratitude goes to Jorge (Tati) Zmud for putting me up in his mom’s house and his place for 48 days free of charge, and for showing such generosity and hospitality to a complete stranger. I made a friend for life. I also like to thank Juan de Martin and his family for feeding me countless home cooked meals and the much needed help with fixing the bike.

I’m indebted to the GSR community for all their troubles as they literally put together a complete motorcycle in one month, and shipped it down here. It’s inspiring to know that I have so many brothers that I’ve never met, but with a single line, they come to my aid at the time of need. I’m honored and humbled to be a part of this great fraternity for I know that they are as selfless as they come.

I’m also indebted to Z1 Enterprises for sponsoring this expedition and delivering the much needed parts with such short notice. Jeff Saunders went above and beyond the call of duty to order everything he didn’t have in stock from Suzuki, and ship them to Jared for the engine makeover. They are great folks who know our bikes inside out, and serve us with care.

I would be remiss not to thank Matt Hanscom for donating the engine, Cliff Saunders for donating the final drive, Sean Pringle for his magnanimous donation which covered the biggest portion of the shipping cost, and those who covered the rest: Jared Williams, Gregory Quinn, Gib Acuna, Barron Fujimoto, Lynn Minthorne, James south, Tom Kent, Joshua Russo, Brandon turner, Robert Hayward, Eric bang, Merrill Oates, Richard Stiver, Dale Dunn, Howard Fairfield, and Daniel Provencher. Forgive me if I’m missing any names here, I don’t have the updated list.

And last but not least, I’d like to thank Jared Williams for his diligent and attentive service to this organization. Time and time again, he has proved to be a blessing, and he continues to impress us all.

Thank you guys for everything. Stay tuned as I hash through the Amazon jungles.

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January 14th, 2011 - Getting The Motor Out of Customs

Jared emailed me with the delivery date of the engine and the waiting was over. The crate would arrive in Buenos Aires on Monday, and it would be ready to be picked up by Tuesday. I packed a little backpack with a shirt, my knife, my small laptop and headed out for the capital city, 500km to the north.

While we were searching for parts in the early stages, Rich Suz, a fellow motorcyclist emailed another GSR member, Adrian Sayanes, in Argentina for help. Adrian emailed me his phone number and offered his assistance, so I took him up on it. He would pick me up at the bus station in Buenos Aires when I arrived, and would help me to get the engine out of the customs.

I had to take two buses to get to B.A. One from Otamendi to Mar del Plata and another to B.A. The main Buenos Aires bus station is the size of the Atlanta airport. With hundreds of bus companies, gift shops, restaurants, and piles of luggage, it was overwhelming for a guy who spent the last two months in one of the most desolated part of the world. The area was packed with Bolivian immigrants who were sleeping behind the fences in the open.

I met Adrian and his brother Esteban at the station. They had to take a long train ride and a bus to get to me, and from the first moment they were nothing but helpful. After a drink at the station, I was relieved to find out that they both spoke very good English, and we got along well. They generously put me up in their mom’s house, and fed me the most delicious pizza I’ve ever had.

I was tired and fell into a peaceful sleep, but woke up at 3:30 am to a racket. The skies were as bright as day, and small rivers were forming in the streets from the massive thunderstorm outside. The rain came down with such ferocity that it killed nine people in a flash. I kept thinking of the poor immigrants that were camped out in a canal next to the railroad tracks under plastic sheets and inadequate shelters.

At 7:30 am, we tried contacting AmeriJet, the airline which shipped the cargo, but there was no answer. We called and kept calling until at 8:30, we finally got through. They didn’t have the engine nor did they know where it was! The guy said that AmeriJet doesn’t fly into Argentina, and they must have put it on another flight. He asked for some info and said he’d get back to me on that. He didn’t sound very promising, so Adrian and I headed out in search of internet so we could call the AmeriJet headquarter in the US to find out what to do. We found a little café with internet, and set up our command center. For the next two hours, I called everyone I could, and we finally succeeded. The engine came on another flight from Florida and it was at the airport already.

With no time to waste, we started our quest at the airport in the hot and humid weather of B.A and it didn’t stop until 8:00 pm. Since we didn’t hire a customs broker, we had to do everything ourselves, and not knowing what to do, we walked around aimlessly and did our best. Actually Adrian did his best. I was just the guy who followed him to the bank, and coughed up money for this paper and that paper. Right off the bat, the airliner charged us $95 for something they couldn’t even explain themselves. It had something to do with the storage and transportation inside the airport. We chased papers one office after another until at around 4 pm; we first got to see the crate. It was monstrous as I expected. The boss man came to inspect the contents, but they had to get into it first. It took a guy with an electric drill a good while to extract twenty or thirty screws from the top cover just to expose the top of the engine. So they weren’t too enthusiastic to dig in further which would reveal the expensive new parts from Z1 enterprise.

The boss man said that importing a complete engine for personal use was illegal in Argentina, but he made an exception; reading Jared’s letter explaining the situation in English and Spanish. He appraised the value of the complete motor at $400 (the new gaskets and seals alone were 400 bucks) and set the tax at 200%.  So we walked back to the bank for the 6th time and paid the money. As we thought it was over, they charged us another 90 bucks for storage fee, inspection fee, (for the guy who wrestled with the screws to get the top off) and forklift before releasing the engine to us. They charged us for two days of storage, but in reality, the engine arrived at the airport at 11 pm on Monday, and we were taking it out on 6:00 pm on Tuesday, not even a full day! But who can argue technicality when bureaucracy prevails every time. So again I paid the man.

Now that we had the engine, we had no way of getting it back home. Adrian’s car is a small BMW and the crate was as big as his trunk. Opening the crate was out of question. Adrian found a guy and after negotiating, they loaded the box in the back of their van for another 100 bucks to take back to town. (Adrian paid for the van and would not even consider being reimbursed, thanks again Adrian). The van driver suggested for us to go ahead, and he would follow, but I wouldn’t have any of it. I jumped through way too many hoops to get my hands on this engine and I wasn’t about to hand it over to anyone else. I rode in the back with the engine while Adrian took the lead to his house.

If getting the engine out of the customs was hard, we were faced with a bigger problem. The bus company refused to take the engine as my luggage due to its ungodly weight. The train turned out to be full and not going to Otamendi, and renting a car from B.A to Otamendi was $350 one way plus gas. We called everyone we knew for hours, but no solution came out of it. So we gave up for the night.

Adrian invited me to his place to have dinner with his girl friend, and they fed me delicious foods until I was about to pop. He dropped me off at his mom’s house gain and this time I slept the whole night after three days. The next morning I woke up with good news. Adrian found a cheap trucking company to take the engine to Otamendi, but we had to drop off the crate at their terminal. Adrian’s mom called around and found a van with a driver for $45, and once again we loaded the crate and headed for the terminal. Another $40 later, the engine got loaded up and it will arrive in Otamendi on Friday. The madness was over. Esteban, Adrian’s brother, took me to the bus station and put me on the bus to Mar del Plata, and I was home free.

Adrian and his whole family literally spent two days on the phone to make all these arrangements, and I have no clue on how I would have done it without their help. Adrian skipped a day work without pay, (despite getting in trouble) and spent every minute of it helping me with anything and everything.  I don’t know how I could even begin to thank these amazing people who extended their generosity to a complete stranger with just an email.

When I came to Argentina, I was impressed with its vast landscape, towering mountains and beautiful glaciers, but what most strike me is its people. Nowhere in the world have I ever been this welcomed as Argentina. It’s an honor to be in this beautiful country.

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January 13th, 2011 - Patagonia Breakdown Aftermath

As you read previously, my motorcycle broke down in Patagonia after wrestling for two days with mighty winds, and I had to send it to the next town so I could start the diagnosis. Well the diagnosis is in. I took the engine apart and my suspicions were right on the money. I had three pistons with holes on top. To make it worse, debris from the detonations splattered all over the inside of the engine, and destroyed the rod bearings. Mar del Plata, Argentina was the end of this motor.

Although all the parts could be found either in US or Europe, there were virtually no parts available in Argentina for this bike. As I always do, I turned to my abundant faithful Suzuki followers on the GSR and in no time, Matt Hanscom, one of the GSR members generously donated a complete motor out of his own bike, and the rest of the guys gathered up the bits and pieces for the swap. Z1 Enterprise kicked in with all new gaskets and necessary parts to make the replacement engine as reliable as new, and as we speak, there are a few guys working on the engine to get it into shape. The big problem is shipping the motor down south, and although many has pledged donations or already contributed towards the shipping cost, it’s still not clear which route we should take to get it down here economically and quickly.

I’m eager to thank everyone who has helped with this dilemma, either financially or by moral support, but I don’t have the complete list of names here so I won’t mention any until I do. Thank you for all you’re doing and thank you for the encouraging comments and emails, they do make me feel that I’m not alone. In the mean time while I’m waiting for the engine to get here, here’s the aftermath story:

Tati and Facundo took me to the bus station and made sure that the driver knew where to drop me off. I was supposed to get off the bus 40km before Mar del Plata at the Otamendi Junction, and the guys would pick me up to take me to Tati’s farm in Otamendi. He even wrote on a piece of paper for me: I need to get off in Otamendi, in Spanish just in case the driver forgot.

The bus ride was only 400km long and I figured it would take no more than 6 hours, but I guess the Argentine buses are like Greyhounds; it stopped a million times to pick up passengers along the way. I was dead tired and I slept pretty much the whole time. Tati was supposed to call me at 6pm to see where I was to pick me up so I kept the phone on for his call. Around 6 pm the phone rang, and it was Cynthia who hadn’t heard from me in a few days and had no idea yet about the motorcycle motor. I told her that the bike motor blew up, and that I was on a bus and asked her not to call me as I was waiting for a phone call (the phone battery was almost dead) and hung up. She took it as I was blowing her off, and called again. It took 6 more phone calls and precious battery life to literally beg her not to call, and by that time the phone died for good.

At dusk, after 8 hours I got dropped off at Otamendi road, a long country road with nothing in sight with no phone or even knowing where I should go. The clouds started coming in and a light drizzle started as I waited over hour and half at the side of the road for a phone call that I couldn’t answer. I tried turning the phone back on and it started ringing immediately. It was Tati and all I said was that “I’m here,” and it cut off again. As I was preparing myself for a bivouac for the night, I saw a dim motorcycle light approaching me, and that was the Calvary.

Facundo took me to the farm where we had a reunion. Four other guys with their bikes were there and along with a German woman who the guys had seen riding her Suzuki DR400 heading for Buenos Aires and invited her too. The giant grill at Tati’s farm was in full operation with chickens and chorizos roasting away, and the endless flow of wine took my mind off the pickle of a situation I was in, at least for the night. We would go to Mar del Plata after the holiday to see about the bike.

The next day Tati took me to his mom’s house where I could stay. Fortunately they had the much needed internet and I started the search for the parts. Not knowing what was wrong with the bike yet, all I could do was to wait. Finally the holiday was over and we picked up the bike and rented a truck to take it back to the farm. Loading and unloading this beast on back of a pickup truck is not easy as we had no ramps and with the bike not running, even if we had ramps it would be a nightmare. When we got to Otamendi, there were only three of us so we opted for a solution. Tati ran into town and picked up couple of drunk guys from a local bar to help out for $2 each. With five us, we picked up the bike and lowered it to the ground.

I immediately started to dismantle the engine and the further I inspected the worse it looked. Three pistons out of four had dime size holes on top and with further inspection, it turned out that the rod bearings were shot from the debris of the blown up pistons. The engine was beyond repair. It was repairable if I had the parts, a clean place to work, tools and access to a machine shop, but I had none of that. I reported my findings and dismay on the GSR (the Suzuki forum) and went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning, the guys at GSR were already on top of it and were making things happen. Matt Hanscom, a member and a friend, donated a complete engine out of his own bike, Z1 Enterprise, our parts sponsor pitched in with all new parts to make the new engine road worthy, another member donated a complete final drive, and Jared Williams, our public relation director (also a GSR member) lead the whole orchestra.

Despite Christmas closing in and family responsibilities, Jared went out of his way and picked up the engine in Maine, then disassembled the whole thing in his kitchen to fix it up. More GSR guys pitched in and they had a wrenching party at Jared’s house to finish the work. In the meanwhile, many members donated money for the shipping cost, and all I had to do was to stay put. And put I stayed. I stayed at the farm. Alone.

I read the two books I had with me twice, watched every movie I had on my computer, wrote blogs, edited videos and even tried to compose music on my computer, but there was nothing that could cure my boredom. I spent the Christmas alone and the New Year. My only transportation was a lousy ancient bicycle that went flat every day, and heading to the town of Otamendi became my only getaway. I would go to an internet cafe to catch up on the shipping process despite the ungodly slow connection, and busied myself shopping for food. Cynthia served as my only contact many days with the outside world, as even my parents couldn’t get a hold of me.

My only pastime became killing flies at the farm as with a pig farm next door, there was never a shortage of flies in my room. Sometimes there were a few hundred files hanging upside down from the ceiling, and one movement from me sent them buzzing all over the place. The first few days I bought bug sprays to kill them, but it got expensive quickly. Then I learned to spray a few shots, and close the door for a few minutes. It wouldn’t kill them but made them a much easier target for my rolled up newspaper.

With flies came spiders too. All my life I liked spiders or at least I left them alone until this farm. One night as I was watching a movie, I felt something walking up on my foot, and as I looked down, I threw the computer to the side, and jumped up a few feet in the air. I could hear my heartbeat in my head, and I was frozen. The giant tarantula-looking hairy spider was more afraid of me as I was afraid of him, but that didn’t matter. As I hit him on the head with a flip flop and thought that it was over, an even bigger one came out from under the bed, and headed right at me. This time I ran out of the room and headed straight for the town. I came back armed with bug sprays and sprayed the whole room until I was about to pass out myself. I never found the body of the second one, but I’m officially staying out of like with spiders.

Days went by and the shipping situation became a problem. Courier services like UPS and FedEx were way out of our price range, and our only hope was airfreight. After a long search (not me, I only take credit for staying put) the rescue team finally figured out a way to send the motor down here. Jared meticulously packed up all the stuff and built a crate for it and was on his way out to send it off when the worst winter storm of the decade hit the northeastern United States. With snow piled up everywhere, over 7000 flights were canceled, and I had to stay put even longer. A few days later, finally the engine went out of Boston, MA and it’s en route to Buenos Aires as we speak.

I’m deeply indebted to all of you who gave moral backing, hands on assistance and financial support to rescue my ass from Argentina. I don’t even know how to repay you, but I want you to know that I’m blessed and grateful to have friends and supporters like you. Thank you, thank you and a million times more: thank you.

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January 10th, 2011 - Escape From Patagonia

I felt as if my right foot was on fire, but I blamed it on the wind. When the wind blows from the side, it pushes the heat of the engine sideways, hence the all familiar warm sensation, but this time my foot was actually burning. I looked down and found my right boot covered in hot oil and saw a cloud of smoke coming from the right tail pipe. The engine started to sound like a Chinese washing machine with a roll of quarters in it, and before I knew it, it lost compression all together. The tachometer needle dropped slowly from 6000 rpm to nothing, and I had to stop. I was broken down in Northern Patagonia, with 230 kilometers to the closest city, in temperatures as hot as Texas in July.

Two weeks ago, after 101 days of hard traveling, we rode gloriously into the end of the world, Ushuaia Argentina. With that I completed the longest leg of my journey, a distance of 26,400 miles from Helena Montana, to Arctic Circle and due south to the end of all roads: Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. I did this journey on a 28-year old motorcycle, which astonishingly made the grueling trip beyond the speculation of many.

It wasn’t just me who felt victorious, the Racing Green Endurance team was ecstatic. Setting a new world record, the SRzero electric car became the first electric vehicle in the world to successfully complete this distance on the longest road in the world: the Pan American Highway. The long journey was over and with that the filming of the documentary which Claudio shot from the back of my motorcycle.

Our parting was bittersweet as I bid farewell to Claudio and Paul as we had traveled together for so long. Although it was just another day for me, for Claudio and Paul, it was just the beginning as they flew back home to edit the hours of footage and get the episodes ready for the BBC. The eight-part documentary will start broadcasting on January 1st, from BBC World News so don’t miss it.

For the rest of the team, I wish them best of luck on their future adventures. They were a good bunch, and despite the differences we had, we got along well and worked towards a same goal in harmony. However hard it was to be on the road every day, it was an honor for me to be a part of this monumental undertaking and play a small roll in its achievement. These young guys showed how with determination everything is possible, even when they were laughed at every time the bottom of the super-low race car scraped on another speed bump. The electric car is a reality, believe it or not. I was skeptical from the second I laid my eyes on it in Mexico, but I was proven wrong. Big thumbs up to the RGE team.

The end of the world

Ushuaia sits at 54 degrees of latitude in the southern hemisphere and is the most southerly city in the world. Just a few kilometers to the south, the Beagle Channel separates the last sizable land mass from the rest of the freezing waters of Antarctica. Here at the end of the world or as the locals like to call it: “The Beginning,” life is as laidback as it comes. It’s really no different from the Alaskan communities I’ve visited and the mental attitude is the same. Since Cynthia was flying back to California, we decided to spend a few days together in the wild expanses of southern Patagonia before saying goodbye.

We visited the penguins, and canoed to a few island south of the Beagle Channels and made some new friends. Between the touristy visits and recovering, I chased after new tires as the rear tire on the GS was worn out beyond safety (the horrible Pirelli MT66, of course) in only 3000 miles, and I needed new tires to cover the distance of over 3000km to Buenos Aires. The more I searched the less I found, and I had to ride on these tires from lack of a choice.

The bike needed some seals and gaskets to stop the oil leaks here and there, and since there were no parts available for this bike in South America, I contacted the Z1 Enterprise, a company that specializes in old Japanese motorcycles. I had a positive experience from my previous purchases from them and I knew if there was one place that could locate all the parts I needed it was them. With only one email (I had no phone access to call them directly), Jeff Saunders of the Z1 Enterprise answered my pleas and the Z1 Enterprise officially became our parts sponsor. I sent a long list of items to Jeff, and he started pulling parts off the shelves and direct ordering the rest from Suzuki. With that out of the way, Cynthia and I started the 600km journey back to Rio Gallegos in light snow.

The wind started to blow, and as Patagonia is famous for its mighty winds, we had every right to be apprehensive of this phenomenon. We crossed a 120km gravel section, survived a very bumpy ferry ride and camped on a rancher’s land at twilight the first day. The winds were still manageable and calmed down as we got to Rio Gallegos. We visited our friends, the Sanchez’s 100+ year old ranch, Chali Aike, on the way to El Calafate and got the taste of ranch life.  In El Calafate, after a day on the glacier, Cynthia got aboard a plane to Buenos Aires to get back to California.

Alone

In every relationship, there’s always a compromise. I always thought that you either have a choice to be in a relationship and be irritated, or to be lonely and not irritated. Now that Cynthia was gone, I was both! I felt alone. I was in a strange country with no knowledge of the language, or a single person I could call friend. We had rushed so hastily to the airport that I had no idea where I was in relation to the roads. I was truly lost, emotionally and physically. The only thing familiar to me was the old faithful GS850 that didn’t let me down. I walked out of the airport disoriented, sad and somewhat petrified. I had no GPS maps for southern Patagonia, and all I could do was to match the coordinates to my paper map and go from there. I rode out in mild winds towards Rio Gallegos with a million thoughts in my head and uncertain of the imminent future.

The wind

Somehow in the dark, I miraculously found the ranch we stayed at on the way to Calafate. Since the ranch was on a totally different road, I had no idea how I got there, but getting lost actually saved the night. The Sanchez family received me with a dinner of spaghetti and lamb and we capped off the night with Mate, the national Argentine drink.

In the middle of the night I woke up to the atrocious sound of the wind lashing the tin roof of the building and wondered how tomorrow was going to fare. In the morning, I walked outside and could barely stand straight as the wind forced me back in the house. The radio announced five days of wind averaging 80 to 100kmh in the provinces of Tierra del Fuego and Santa Cruz; where exactly I would be traveling. I had to make the call before it was too late. I could either stay put at the ranch and wait out the winds, or I could tough it out and try to out run it before it got worse. Since I needed the parts that Jeff was sending me to Buenos Aires, I decided to leave and dash for the capital city.

The wind blew from the Northeast and it was a tail-wind until I reached the crossing of the Ruta 3, the highway that runs North/South on the Atlantic coast of Argentina. This is where things started going from bad to worse. I’ve ridden this motorcycle for so long that I know its every move, every flaw and every handling glitch, and I was confident that I could ride it in any weather on any continent. And I have. I’ve ridden it in snow, in sand, in the mighty winds of southern Wyoming and New Mexico, the Dempster Highway in Yukon, the floods of Central America, and the high mountain roads of the Andes, so my confidence wasn’t from a macho ego; it was based on the hard-earned experience of thousands of hard miles. But there was something different about this wind. It was constant.

It pounded me hour after hour without mercy to the point my neck was hurting from the force of the helmet pushing on my head. Every little hill I passed was a dangerous wind-stopper as it stopped the wind for one or two seconds and unleashed its full furry on the other side all at once. Every truck that passed me on the opposite side promised a mighty blow and trashed me about the road. Sometimes there were three or four trucks passing me simultaneously and that was the absolute hell on earth. I stopped at every sheltered outcrop of rocks to catch my breath and relax my aching arms. I tried a few time to light up a cigarette and only once I succeeded. I took one puff, and the cigarette burned almost halfway with the wind.

And the land was flat. No shelter to pitch a tent or even a tree. I was sure that my tent would withstand these winds as it’s a four-season mountaineering tent, but the problem was pitching it. It was impossible for one person to hold the fabric down and erect the tent in this wind. I was ready to dig a hole and go underground if I couldn’t find a place soon as the wind intensified by the minute. The wind wasn’t just killing me; it was killing my precious fuel in a land that gas stations are more scarce than hen’s teeth. I could see the fuel gauge needle moving towards empty, but there was nothing I could do. I kept on rolling the throttle and hoped for a gas station, or I would be doomed.

In a distance I saw two giant hills and a wide open valley after that. I had a feeling I was going to get hit hard there as the valley dipped very low, and I knew it would be a disastrous wind tunnel. I just didn’t know how bad. As I entered the hills the wind stopped, but I could see a bridge over two small ponds down the valley that looked horrifying. The shallow water of the ponds had one foot or bigger white-caps, and every bush and tall grass was flattening to the ground. It was too late to stop, and I emerged out of the shelter of the hills. The gale hit me on the left side and brought the 800lb hunk of iron traveling 60mph to a halt. I had the throttle wide open and kept down shifting for a hope of getting out of this tunnel, but the bike came to a stop a few feet before the bridge in the middle of the road and stalled. I held on to it with everything I had as I knew if I dropped it, I would never be able to pick it up in this wind. I was at a 45 degrees angle with my left foot on the ground and trying to save the bike from blowing away.

I heard a loud honk from a truck coming at me from behind, but I couldn’t move. I tried to start the bike, but to no avail so I stayed put in the middle of the road motionless. The truck swerved hard to pass me and his blast hit me even harder than the wind. I had to get off the road but my legs were trembling and the bike wouldn’t turn on. Pushing it was out of the question as the wind was hitting me straight on from the side and front. I opened the choke all the way, and the bike rumbled to life. I ushered it to the shoulder with the kickstand down. Even with the kickstand down I still had to lean on it to keep it from toppling over.

I was pinned in the worst place I could possibly be, and I couldn’t move. So I waited. I started to see a pattern in the gusts. The wind blew a steady 90-100kmh and that was manageable; it was the gusts that made it impossible to move. The gusts weren’t short, they would last 15 seconds, and then they would calm down for 10 second before hitting again. For about 5 minutes I studied the wind and waited impatiently as my fingers started to get numb from the cold. The temperatures were well below freezing, and the wind-chill was intolerable.

I counted 1, 2, 3, 4,… and on 10 I made a run for it full blast on to the bridge to other side. I rode like a bat out of hell and finally stopped behind another hill to catch my breath. I kept the bike running this time. The temperatures were so cold and the wind so fierce that it cooled off the engine in less than two minutes where I was pinned down on the road, that’s why I had to choke the bike. I was scared beyond belief. If someone gave me a bus ticket in exchange for my bike on that bridge, I would have happily done so, but now I was coming out of the shock. I kept telling myself that this was stupid. It was suicide. I saw a building that looked like a gas station in a distance. I ran for it. Later I learned that two motorcyclists died that very same day on this road in the wind. I was very lucky to be alive. My heart goes out to their families.

Out of gas

I rolled into the quiet gas station and was disheartened to see a sign on the pump: Out of gas. I noticed two other motorcycles parked in front of the building and a guy who seemed to be one of the riders came up to me to give me the news. He asked me how much fuel I had left and when I shook my head, he said in perfect English: “Well, you’re fucked brother.” There was no gas anywhere for another 100km.

Jorge Zmud or “Tati” as his friends call him is an Argentine who lived in Florida for 10 years. He and his friend Fokundo rode their 125cc Yamaha’s from Mar del Plata, Argentina to Ushuaia and were on their way back. They had a close-call as well on the bridge with Fokundo being blown over and falling. Tati told me they were going nowhere in this wind and they were waiting it out. That sounded like a smart decision so I joined them inside for mate and empanadas. The weather turned for the worse with snow flying horizontally and temperatures dropped even more. In the meantime, we sucked out 4 liters of gas out of their tanks to put in my gas-guzzler four cylinder engine to enable me to get to the next station.

Tati called his girlfriend, and she updated us with good news; the wind was supposed to die down in a few hours and we had a clear window to ride out of hell. While we waited, a group of Brazilian motorcyclists joined us with their disbelief of the wind and empty gas tanks. We waited for three and half hours before we could ride again. I wore everything I owned and still shivered as I walked outside of the building. Tati, Fokundo and I rode out north to the next gas station and from there we decided to travel together since we were going to the same town anyway.

These guys were heaven-sent as they knew the area and knew the language. They were both good lads with lots of stories to tell and they traveled the same way I do:  camping and cooking their own food. We became fast-friends in no time. We camped the first night at a campground which turned out to be free since the guard wasn’t there. The next day we covered 500km to the coast on the Atlantic. The weather started to warm up and mercifully, the wind was almost gone. Occasional gusts shook the bikes but nothing we couldn’t live with. Our plan was to stop at Punta Tomba, the biggest penguin reserve in Argentina (top three in the world) to see the giant flightless birds. I saw the penguins with Cynthia in Beagle Channel, but it was so cold and windy that day that I didn’t care for them too much. This time we would see them in much better weather and on our own pace.

The tire dilemma

My rear tire started to get really bad to the point that the cotton threads holding the plys together started to show. It was scary riding on it, but I had no choice. We kept pushing towards Comodoro, the biggest city closest to us and the tire kept getting worse. After calling around for almost two hours, we located a no-name tire that fit. It was wider than the original, but the same height and size, so I went for it. In México City, I purchased four new Pirelli MT66 (they are awful, think twice before handing your money over for this garbage), two fronts and two rears and used three out of four. The one leftover was a front tire which I didn’t need, but didn’t want to leave behind either. I hauled this garbage tire all the way with me and in this town, I found a customer for it. A guy wanted the tire so I sold it to him for 400 pesos. My rear tire was 350 pesos and installation was 30 pesos. I scored 20 pesos which I tipped to the tire guy. Life was all good again. We stayed at a municipal gymnasium for free that night, thanks to Tati’s fast-talking, and treated ourselves to a hearty camp dinner and cheap wine. We crashed like logs.

Amongst the penguins

The road to Punta Tomba took us through the countryside with nothing but deep gravel. The roads were new with no potholes so we unleashed the bikes 60mph on deep gravel, occasionally sliding and skipping, but we just gave it more gas. In 100km we didn’t see any cars, and we rode Dakar style on the pegs over the rolling hills. It was a much needed joy run, and I was impressed with Tati’s dirt riding skills. I chased him for an hour to catch up with him, and when I finally did, he was slowing down because we were at the end of the road. There’s only one secret to dirt riding: being fearless enough to give it more gas when the bike goes where you don’t want it to go. I think most people who fall and hurt themselves dirt riding are those who are scared of going fast. This 28-year old road bike was nothing short of a KTM on these roads, it just lacked the suspension travel which wasn’t important anyway since the road was as flat as a mirror.

We reached the penguin reserve at dusk and were informed that there was no camping allowed anywhere, and it was closed until 8am the next morning. So Tati got to work and after talking to the park ranger for 10 minutes, we even got invited to stay inside the ranger’s house with steak dinner. I don’t know what he told him and I don’t care, but I’m loving this guy. The dinner was exquisite, and the company a typical warm Argentine camaraderie. The admission fee was 35 pesos each which they waved, and we were the only people walking with the penguins for two hours.

This reserve is packed with over a million penguins and they are as fearless as they come. They walked right towards us, and some even poked their beaks in the camera sunshade. The penguins I saw in South were lazy and stupid looking, but these guys were lively and cheerful. This visit was the most amazing experience of my stay in Argentina to this day, and it will be hard to beat.

The disaster

The weather kept getting hotter, and we started to shed off our long johns and ski gloves. We camped in a beach town the next night, and it was almost too hot to sleep in the tent. At 8am I ran out of the tent with sunburn as the tent turned into a solar oven. We cooked some eggs for breakfast and decide to leave after lunch so we can do some chores around the camp: cleaning helmets, chains, checking the oil, tire pressure, mending clothes and socks and of course drinking mate. Around 1pm, we finally got on the road and made 200km before stopping for fuel. I told the guys to go ahead as I would catch up with them on the road. I wanted to get my MP3 player hooked up so I could listen to some music. I got back on the road maybe only 15 minutes after they left and cruised about 70 to 75mph to catch up with the slow pokes on 125cc Yamahas. And that’s when the bike broke down.

The engine was so hot that I couldn’t keep my face close to it to see where the oil was coming from, and one small try to restart the bike (after adding oil) disheartened me. It sounded like the pistons were scraping the cylinder walls and I stopped. I was frying in my protective gear in the full sun, so after taking off my jacket, I tried pushing the bike. I don’t know what I was thinking, but after 2 inches of hard push I gave up. The bike wasn’t going anywhere.

I tried to stop some small pickup trucks but I soon realized that there was no way of getting the bike in the bed of a pickup without ramps and even with ramps, it would take a few people to push this monster up there with no power. The search for a pickup truck towing a trailer turned out to be futile, and as the sun blazed on my head, I got more nauseated. I flagged down a semi truck and he stopped. With my 50-word Spanish vocabulary I got the message across that the motor blew and I needed to get to the next gas station where the guys would likely be waiting for me. The semi was empty with plenty of room, but again there was no way of getting the bike 6 foot high in the air to load it in the trailer.

Thinking the unthinkable

Only one option remained as I was as far from any civilization as could be: to tow the bike behind the semi with a tow strap. Towing a motorcycle is illegal in the United States and for a good reason; it’s extremely dangerous. What keeps the motorcycle upright is the power of the engine to the rear wheel which allows it to maneuver with accelerating and leaning under power. When it’s towed, the leaning becomes obsolete as the tow rope passes between the forks and the power is coming from the tow vehicle. The rider has to sit down on a death-trap and follow the tow vehicle with no control whatsoever and if anything goes wrong, the bike and riders are sure to be dragged behind the truck until the driver realizes the mishap.

I had no other choice. I wrapped the orange strap carefully around the frame and tethered my life to the semi truck ahead of me. The problem was that the strap was too short, and since I was riding behind the trailer, the driver had no way of seeing me. He asked me how fast he should go and the only high number in Spanish I remembered was cincuenta (50) so I uttered it with fear. He shook his head in agreement and started to pull me off. The strap tightened and off we went after a couple of jerks. The gas station we were trying to get to was 58km away and I think I lost just that much weight in pounds sweating and cursing at the driver as he sped up to 80kmh, well beyond my comfort zone. I held on for dear life and didn’t blink so I could take the slack out of the tow line every time he slowed down with gently using the rear brake. Every truck that passed us on the opposite way blasted me, and I shivered at the thought of losing control. Mile after mile, I sweated and held on for the safety of the gas station which seemed to be on the far side of the moon. Finally the truck started to slow down, and I kept a tight rope between us as he pulled in the station. From the corner of my eyes, I saw my biking buddies coming over camera in hands snapping pictures of the stupid scene.

Tati came to my rescue one more time as he worked out a deal with the driver to take the bike and me to the next town, 170km away so we could figure out a way to fix it. He agreed on 150 pesos but one problem remained. We still had no ramp. We rounded up a few hefty guys and as I watched in awe, they lifted the heavy beast 6 feet off the ground and into the back of the forty- foot trailer. We strapped it down and headed out on the road again, due north.

We stopped at a truck stop right before the town to figure out what we could do as Tati and Fokundo had a reunion to attend at 5p.m. the next day 450km away. Tati suggested taking the bike to his ranch, about 40km from Mar del Plata where I would have a place to work on it, and I could stay as long as I needed to for free. Again, I had no choice and his offer was hard to resist, so I agreed. The truck driver would take the bike to a transport company in the morning to be shipped and I would catch a bus to the ranch to meet the guys. I bought dinner for the very helpful truck driver and my new friends and we slept at the back of the semi-trailer that night next to rotting tomatoes and cabbages. The next morning, we shipped the bike for 450 pesos to Mar del Plata, and I got on the bus for another 150 pesos myself to meet it. The day after tomorrow is a holiday in Argentina so I have to wait another day to pick up the bike from the trucking company. Then, I have to rent a small pickup truck to take it to Tati’s place 40km away and find out what’s actually wrong with it.

As I’m writing this very long post in the bus station, I’m grateful for all the help and suggestions anyone can offer as I’m in a pinch here. This bike is my only ride and what I have on it are my only worldly possessions. When I started this journey back in August of 2009, I sold everything and I donated every piece I had left including this bike to our non-profit organization. If I can’t fix it here, I’ll have no choice but leaving it behind to cut the losses. Purchasing another motorcycle would be extremely expensive in Argentina as every imported thing is taxed 200%. An old shaggy Kawasaki KLR costs around $8000 USD here, and I honestly have no more money to afford that kind of spending. If the heads and cylinders are beyond repair, shipping the parts from United States will be outrageously expensive even if I can find the parts for free. Cross your fingers and wish me luck as I’ll try my best to get this old gal back on the road.

I’m not giving up, bike or no bike, I’ll continue this journey. Donkeys are cheap down here so stay tuned.

Chris Sorbi

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January 7th, 2011 - Argentina, Tierra del Fuego

We intended to start out around 9 a.m. to finish our last leg in Chile and cross the border to Argentina. However, somehow the RGE team’s Nikon SLR camera went missing which caused a delay as everyone searched around for the camera. Unfortunately, the camera was nowhere to be found (most likely got stolen out of their hotel room). With only seven days left to the finish line, I offered the use of my Pentax SLR and we got out of dodge.

The scenery on this last leg was absolutely breathtaking. It’s almost impossible to describe how lush and verdant the terrain was. The mix of fields, mountains, trees, and profusion of flowers make it jaw-dropingly spectacular. For me, Claudio, and the guys in the SRzero, there was a bit more to contend with as not only did we have rain, (the first real rain since Colombia) but it was bloody cold. We had all kinds of layers on to help ward off the chill, but it wasn’t working

And at last, there it was, the white and blue flag of Argentina waving in the wind. Since I was eight years old, I had wanted to visit this country, and 21 years later, I rode my motorcycle to it. It was the hot summer of 1990 when the Argentine national football team lost the final World Cup match to Germany, and I cried for two days. I wanted to be a football player, but it turned out that life had a different path in mind for me.

Upon our arrival at the border, the bike was completely out gas. Trying to get gas from the van was a no-go as it had an anti-robbing screen in the way. A kindly policeman came to my rescue who went out to town and got some gas for us. Finally the stern Nazi-like Chilean police had given way to helpful and laidback Latino police we came to know.

As soon as we entered Argentina, we came across patches of snow much to Claudio’s great delight. He wished only for two things on the last leg of the film as we had pretty much seen everything else in the long journey: snow and penguins. As it turned out, he would never get to see the penguins, but at least snow was better than nothing.  As we got higher into the mountains, the snow covered the landscape and the freezing rain turned into ice. The weather was blustery and cold in earnest, and we were relieved to enter Bariloche and settle into a cozy chalet with heating (a novelty in these parts). The host was incredibly accommodating to our every request, including parking the bike on the covered balcony by our room

The next day dawned bright and sunny although it was still bitingly cold outside. Then it changed again. In the space of a few minutes it rained, snowed, and hailed. Cynthia and Claudio braved the elements for a walk to the beautiful lake to film and take pictures, elated that we weren’t leaving until 2 pm. Our next stop was Esquel, a beautiful ski town in the foot hills of the Andes, and that marked our entry into the Province of Chubut, the start of the Patagonia. I didn’t get a minute of sleep that night as two busloads of high school rugby players checked in the hotel the night before and kept us up all night with their rowdy antics. I was so tired that the thought of driving 400 miles was out of the question. Paul Jackson, Claudio’s film editor, took on the task of riding, and I slept in the van the whole time. All I remember is peeking out of the dusty van windows between naps and seeing millions of sheep scattered all over Patagonian landscape.

The Patagonia has a peculiar landscape. It has so many living things in it that makes it so alive. From flamingos, armadillos, deer, sheep, guanaco, (wild lama) and ostriches to of course cows, it is home to giant glaciers, formidable mountains, and barren deserts. It has some of the most extreme temperatures from minus 30F in winter to 100F in summer. To add to that are the freakish winds which blow in the summer at such vicious velocities that it makes the locals wish for the freezing but calm winters.

The next day proffered a bizarre scene from a horror movie. Millions of grasshoppers covered the road as we left tire tracks on their corpses. The motorcycle engine was covered with torn off legs and heads, and it smelled like a bakery as they sizzled on the hot engine. As we caught up with the rest of the group, we found the electric car being pulled out of a ditch. The SRzero had spun off road trying to avoid a large pothole and broken two shock absorbers. A three hour roadside wrenching party started, and a guacho came by on horseback with his dogs from his hillside home to see if we were ok. Luckily we had spare shocks, and replaced the broken ones and got back on the road to finally enter Tierra del Fuego.

Tierra del Fuego is an island, and that’s where Ushuaia is located. To reach it, large ferries are used to cross the Strait of Magellan, which can haul pretty much anything, and that’s the only way of getting in and out besides flying. Tierra del Fuego is also co-owned by Chile and Argentina, which means you have to cross into Chile again and back to Argentina 100 miles later. The no-man’s-land is heavily protected with mine fields and barbwires as Argentina and Chile have a long dispute over these parts. Argentines are not too fond of Chileans and vice versa, and it’s apparent everywhere you go. To give the Argentines credit, they are warmer people than their aristocratic neighbors. Besides, they make one hell of Asado (Argentine-style BBQ) which is hard to beat. Argentina is a meat lover’s paradise.

For the first time in the long journey down, I took a turn riding in the SRzero for a ride to Rio Gallegos. I rode my bike inches from it for thousands of miles, but now for the first time, I truly got to appreciate its powers and smoothness in that 200km ride. The SRzero is an electric car with no internal combustion engine. It makes no noise, no pollution, has 400+ horsepower, sits 2 inches from the ground, it’s pretty and holy crap, it’s fast. Unlike gas engines, all the power is available at a split second at all time, and it takes off like a rocket the second the accelerator is down. It was a fun drive to Rio Gallegos, but as my bad luck would have it, the bike broke down soon after we started out in the middle of nowhere while Claudio and Cynthia were riding it. We had long passed them not realizing they had broken down, so it took hours for them to find us at our destination as they had a hard time flagging someone down amidst the ostriches and guanacos to help them get the bike started.

The stator was fried and with our deadline closing in, I had to fix it fast. I ruled out spending time to find a replacement for it as I quickly learned that parts for this bike are almost non-existence in South America. That left me with the only option: rewinding it. The entire next day, which happened to be Cynthia’s birthday, found me and Cynthia in a shop trying to fix the stator while the rest of the team went out to enjoy a day at a sheep ranch owned by the Sanchez family, our new friends. The guy who did the work wound the coils wrong on his first try, so he had to do it again. Wrong again.  At 10 pm, after three tries he said that he’ll fix it the next morning, but we had to leave the next day at 7:30 a.m. and that wasn’t an option. I asked him if he would let me do it in his shop (the bike was torn apart there) and he amazingly agreed. He gave us the key to his shop (total strangers), and he even came back himself after midnight to help some more. By the time we redid the coils and got it working it was already 4 am.  That left us with two hours of sleep and on the road again for Rio Grande, the home to Malvinas heroes (or as the English call them: Falkland Islands intruders) our last stop before Ushuaia. But I didn’t care. We were so close to the end that it was hard to sleep anyway. We even made it to our meeting place at the appointed time a full half hour ahead of the RGE team.

The Racing Green Team would finish their long journey in Ushuaia, the southern tip of Argentina and also the southernmost city in the world. From there, I would spend some more time enjoying Argentina with Cynthia on our own before she went home and then resume the rest of the journey as a One-Man-Band again.  The days were numbering and with only 2 days to go to Ushuaia, it almost didn’t feel real. We had traveled together from México to the end of the world, and with all its ups and downs, it was a fantastic experience. I got to learn many things from Claudio on professional videography, and numerous film editing tips and tricks watching Paul do what he does best. And most importantly, I got to share it with the amazing Cynthia.

Although Cynthia joined the expedition in California, she played a tremendously invaluable role in starting out our budding non-profit organization, and was a diligent expedition partner throughout the journey. She never once complained in any kind of riding or weather conditions, woke up early and went to bed late. She dried my clothes with a hair blow dryer in tropical rains of Central America, stood by my side anytime something went wrong, took amazing pictures to document the journey, coordinated our visits to clinics and poor neighborhoods, constantly translated for me, went out of her way to fix anything and everything she could, and she gave more than I could give. The decision to part was not easy to say the least, but it was necessary for the completion of this expedition, even though she may not think so. This could be a decision that I will regret for many years, but it was the right thing to do for me and the expedition. She will still be actively involved in the organization, and I know that if I ever need something, I can always count her, no matter what. She will be missed dearly.

The odometer is clicking fast and Ushuaia is only a rock-throw away and with that, I covered 120 degrees of latitude on an ancient motorcycle from the Arctic to Equator to Antarctic. We made it to the end of the world.

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January 5th, 2011 - Paranal and the Chilean whorehouse

Lima marked the last big civilization in Peru, and the worst traffic I’ve ever seen in my life. In the first hour entering Lima, the SRzero ran into a semi-truck in the mayhem and broke the rear fiberglass fender. The RGE guys fixed the car in no time, and soon we entered Chile, to attempt crossing of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. Ever since we left Ecuador, seeing a tree was like a Bigfoot sighting and the Atacama was living up to its name. Occasional desert flowers and green moss were signs of underground waters, but they were far and long in between. Even cactus were few and far in between in certain areas of the desert. Atacama is a giant desert, and it is a fascinating place. In the day time, the temperatures soared to the point that asphalt started to melt, and at night they dropped down to freezing.

To say that the region is dry is an understatement. My rear tire was down to almost nothing, but considering the impossible chances of precipitation, I chose not to change it until it was gone completely. We continued along a mostly flat moonscape which seemed to go on endlessly, but would occasionally wend along and down into fantastical yawning canyons.

Despite having to have the bike inspected and the entire van unloaded to x-ray all the contents at the border, we made it out of Peru and through Chile in a record-breaking time. Chile is unlike all other Latin American countries. The European and in particular, the German influence, is tremendous, and all the natural resources have made this very long country a success in the relatively poor South America.  We proceeded to Arica, a coastal town with more German flags than Chileans, and we promptly got lost. Through most of Central America and some of Colombia we had police and/or contacts meeting us and escorting us from point A to point B, but now as we were traveling independently, we were to experience travel the way most people do, which I much prefer. The RGE guys usually set up the route and chase Google maps on their Ipads religiously as we follow along, but occasionally I had to turn on the GPS to help us find our way back to the right direction.

Just like In Oaxaca, Mexico, we got stuck behind a strike in the middle of the highway which was in this case for a customs checkpoint. Again we could get around the ordeal on the motorcycle, but the SRzero and the van had to wait out the festivity.  Claudio was so dead tired that he slept right on the side of the road while I used the time to go fishing and Cynthia picked up shells. When the road cleared up, Cynthia got on the back of the bike, to her delight, and Claudio slept in the van. Since there was no filming to do, we went ahead and took our time fishing and stopping for pictures while the slow pokes followed behind. In all of our time on the road, I have never seen so many pick-up trucks. In fact, pick-up trucks are rather rare in much of Central and South America. However, there seemed to be almost more pick-ups than cars which we found out later belonged to the miners.

At around 5 pm, we arrived at the mining town of Antofasto and waited at the entrance for the rest of the guys to catch up. We waited an hour and half with no sign of them with the temperatures dropping as sunset approached. Around sunset we gave up, and drove into town looking for internet to email the guys and get some food. Claudio wrote to say that they stopped about 80km before Antofasto as the car ran out of charge and to just get a hotel and let them know where to find us in the morning.

We considered sleeping on the beach as there is no shortage of coastline, but A. we didn’t have our camping gear with us as everything was in the van, and B. the locals strongly cautioned against this, saying that the area was quite dangerous. Thus began a three hour ordeal to find a hotel as apparently during the week, the hotels are all full from all the miners and business people.  We even had one hotel call other hotels for us, but there was only one room vacant and it was $250.  I was very tired and sleepy and not happy to have to drive back to Mejillones where the rest of the group was, but not wanting to pay a fortune for a night sleep, we started on the way out of town, when Cynthia spotted a tiny motel which looked promising.

As we rode inside the gate, a plump lady ran towards us and asked us “How many hours?” All night was the answer. I had my own girl with me otherwise she would have supplied the lady for the night as well. The whorehouse was” homey” and cheap, and we had our own private garage. We rented a pink room with hardwired speakers that played love songs all night. It even had a sighting window with light in it for peep show I suppose. Now that we had our room, we went back into town to email Claudio our address and GPS coordinates for the next day, and on the way back the clutch cable broke. Again. Thankfully, I had a spare bare cable which barely worked with some heavy modification. When I closed my eyes it was 2 am already.

Paranal Observatory

Much of the area looked liked Mars, with no humidity or even a cloud in sight. That’s why 14 European countries got together, and built the largest and most impressive observatory on earth in the middle of the Atacama Desert. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) or the Paranal is the one and only in the world, and we had the privilege to visit it. The last James Bond movie was actually shot there, and if that wasn’t enough to persuade us to go there, we were offered to stay at the observatory overnight, and would get a tour of the inside of the telescopes at night to see the far far away galaxies.

The roads to the observatory weren’t marked, and we had a hell of a time finding our way there. The sun burnt through my black riding gear and the engine felt like a million degrees in between my legs. We asked for directions three times, and every time they sent us on a wild goose chase. After much frustration, we finally found the road and started to climb high up in the desert until we could go no further.

Paranal’s remote location was selected due to the unique feature of being one of the least humid and driest places on earth which makes for ideal clear skies for the telescopes. While checking in and getting our ID badges, we were told that tourists could only visit on weekends but were not able to stay overnight or go up to the observatory at night. Being able to stay at the observatory where the workers and visiting astronomers stay was a pretty big deal.  The site has many workshops and storage buildings clustered together. Towards the West is a large object that looks like a Frisbee or a giant UFO sitting on top of the earth. We descend down the path into the disc and found ourselves in a man-made oasis with tropical trees, birds, flowers, vines and a pool in the middle. Inside the bubble, there was a cafeteria that served delicious food, made by world class chefs, and the James Bond hotel consisted of three stories of bedrooms where the astronomers stayed.  On the hill several kilometers above the bubble was the observatory.

Despite the amazing location, I had to put aside any thoughts of relaxation as the bike was in desperate need of some TLC. I was pleased that they had a workshop where I could change the bald rear tire and the oil. The kind mechanic gave me free oil and the complete use of his shop. I arrived at the Paranal on an empty tank, (gas stations are few and far between in the desert and getting lost three times to find the place didn’t help) and was grateful that they generously filled up my fuel tank as well. In the evening, we went up the hill with the group to look at the stars and the observatory. It was almost impossible to see any black sky due to the infinite number of brightly glittering stars. The view was truly spectacular. We went inside for a tour of the control room of the observatory and were able to see the image of a far-away star pulsating on the computer screen. However, frankly it was disappointing. We thought we were going to peer through the telescope and see many stars up close, but apparently they don’t do that. Computer screens are what they spend their time on, but it was a great experience nevertheless.

In the morning I finished up the maintenance on the bike, and we headed out into Atacama again. While it was somewhat warm at the Paranal, it became bitingly cold and windy as we descended down to the valley, so we bundled up like Eskimos. Surprisingly we started to see more signs of life as the road came closer to the coast again and we started to catch glimpse of patches of green interspersed amongst the rocky terrain along with cactuses and various desert wildflowers in purple, yellow, and white. After so many days of sand, dirt and rocks, these little bits of green seemed to be from a Technicolor dream. I wanted to eat the flowers rather than looking at them! Eventually we made our stop in the sleepy little fishing village of Tongoy at a seaside hotel situated directly on the water. With furnishings straight out of a 1950’s time capsule, the hotel had a sunny, airy feel to it with floor to ceiling windows and view of the Pacific dotted with bobbing yellow fishing skiffs, pelicans, and seagulls, as well as a perfect sunset. We weren’t disappointed to find out that due to the low amperage electricity, the SRzero would not be fully charged in time to leave in the morning which meant that we could enjoy a rare full rest day in this delightful locale.

Out Of Chile

It was 9 a.m. by the time we headed out of Tongoy and headed for Santiago. The morning started out overcast and very cold with Claudio back on the bike. As we rode on, the landscape gave way to more eucalyptus and fir trees and the roadsides were lined with clumps of yellow flowers. We arrived in Santiago by late afternoon and promptly got lost again. Santiago is the capital of Chile and is nestled at the base of the Andes Mountains. It is a very modern, fashionable and wealthy city, and its culture is more regimented in following procedures and rules. Chile is the only country in South America that you can’t bribe the government officials including the SS looking police. Their uniform was straight out of the 1940’s Nazi Germany with pea-green long trench coats, high leather boots and gloves. In fact they were very strict and not once did they cracked a smile. After so much freedom in all other countries, Santiago seemed very uptight and didn’t feel right.

We had a few days in Santiago to cool our jets and do some work. I celebrated my 29th birthday by spending a fun relaxing day with Cynthia. This was the first time that we were able to enjoy a stop in a big city for a few days WITHOUT having to do any maintenance to the bike. Chile has a strong economy and is one of the top Latin American countries for security. Chile has eradicated malnutrition through extensive government efforts, and several locals that we talked with were quite proud to share how the government provides fortified split rice which is used to make soup for elderly pensioners which has actually, along with the fortified milk, helped to increase longevity in the elderly. On Wednesday, the RGE team, Paul, and Cynthia left to Talca. Claudio and I stayed back in Santiago to wait for Claudio’s replacement video camera to arrive via UPS from the UK. The next day we tried to pick it up only to discover that Claudio would be required to pay an exorbitant customs fee ($700 USD and hire a customs broker to get his own camera out of the greedy hands of the Chilean customs officials). We said, “Hell no,” and rented a camera instead, and headed out to catch up with the group in Talca. The drive down got progressively more beautiful as the very green countryside was dotted with vineyards, trees of all sorts, and loads of yellow flowers along the roads and in the fields. With the view of the white-capped Andes in the eastern horizon, we slowly traversed the longest country on the map towards Argentina.

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