Saturday, October 9, 2010

64. Returning Home: Reflections about the trip (05/20/08)

After 7 months on the road in Latin America I have now with some reluctance returned home to Des Moines, Iowa. It has been great to see my family and friends. Readjusting to a less action packed lifestyle is taking some getting used to but at the same time it is nice to relax in the confines of your own house (I mean my parents house; exciting! I know.). The combination of living poorly and almost biting the dust many times has made me realize that life is too short to hold grudges or worry about things that are not important.
(It took a million headaches first but I managed to sell the motorcycle in Paraguay. After many hours of detailing it came out pretty shiny.)

 There were many unique experiences on the trip. I toured a salmon farm, a helicopter forest fire operation, a silver mine (where the miners still use picks), a jewlery factory and many ancient ruin sites. In Bolivia I walked over the ground where the shootout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid took place. I drove the world's most dangerous road, detonated dynomite on cactus and rocks deep in Bolivia, hitchhiked the famed Carretera Austral in Chile and drove parts of Ruta 40 in Argentina. Some new meals included chicken hearts, fish heads, and intestines. It was my first time camping out under the  open stars. After losing my watch 2 times I became good at telling time using the sun. 

 So far, I have not missed my motorcycle at all. There were far too many days where I had to pretend to be MacGyver and try to fix a serious problem with hardly more than a swiss army knife, gum, and a paper clip. Problem after problem led to constant greasy hands and lots of bitching about the cost of BMW parts in South America. I did appreciate the durability of my motorcycle. Despite falling onto rocks, crashing at 40 mph, driving through rivers, and numerous falls it never changed the smooth handling or pull of the Rotax engine. (Note to motorcyclists: KLR's and XLR's are perfect for this trip! Do not bring a BMW!)

There have been a few times where I was very scared. In Colombia, my motorcycle broke down at dawn in the middle of no where and the military came by and warned that the area was unsafe. When walking the streets of Colon, Panama I left my helmet on until after I entered a shop because every 3rd local looked like he was recovering from a bar fight. In the Bolivian mountains I was surprised to hit the only patch of snow in fifty miles and be thrown 10 ft up in the air at 40 mph with cold asphalt to break my fall (enough force in the crash to bend my handlebar). When my chain broke on Ruta 40 I pushed the motorcycle for 3 hours until someone stopped to help. My advice to avoid some of these dangerous situations is pick a friend that you can run faster than and do the trip with him/her!

 Looking back on my trip the greatest thing about it has been the people I have met. In the beginning communication was difficult and my Spanish has not improved much but I can understand the jist of things now. People of all backgrounds helped me. There was the elderly lady who let me sleep on the floor of her 1 room house and than there was the owner of a jewlery chain who hosted me in his 5 bedroom penthouse condo. In Chile after being robbed of my tools, Rocky (an American helicopter pilot in Santiago) lent me his tools so I could finish my trip. A German couchsurfer in Paraguay spent many hours of his time answering phone calls, translating conversations, and doing research so that I could sell my motorcycle in Paraguay. Eduardo, a random motorcyclist in Argentina, let me stay at his house and helped me make inquiries on the day I was threatened by a police officer. There were also a lot of great motorcyclists from all around the world who I met on this trip. Now, I am trying to Pay It Forward and help out nearby travelers.

63. Exploring the Mennonite Colonies in Paraguay! (05/01/08)

My main reason for coming to Paraguay was to see the 3 Mennonite Colonies in the Chaco (the Northern largely uninhabited region of Paraguay). The first colony (Loma Plata) was started after Canadian Mennonites on a ship bound for Argentina in 1927, decided to change their destination to Paraguay after being invited by the Paraguayan President (who was on the same boat). Filadelfia was the next colony started in 1930 by Russian Mennonites (who left the Soviet Union to avoid the Bolshovik Revolution but ironically they ended up in the center of the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay only 2 years later), and than in 1947 came the Ukranian Mennonites (who came because many were forced to fight in WWII).

 At Klein Motors I met Alveroni who was a 26 year old Mennonite from Filadelfia who was having his motorcycle fixed too. He was a very nice guy and told me all about life in the colonies and about how many Mennonites are buying big motorcycles now (20 years back only small motorcycles could be found in the Chaco). Alveroni was studying to get a business degree in Asuncion (many Mennonites come here for their university). I told him that I was leaving the next day to visit the Chaco and he gave me the name of his friend Sander to call who had an Africa Twin.

I got up at 5 a.m. and took a 6 a.m. bus to the Chaco which did not arrive until 2 p.m. (only a 500 km stretch). It seemed like we stopped at every shack a long the road. After a couple hours on the bus I noticed that everyone on the bus was Indigenous which was strange because 95% of Paraguayans are Mestizos. It turned out that the Indigenous were commuting to their ranch jobs in the Chaco.

 Finally we pulled into Filadelfia and I went to call my contact Sander. He did not answer and I figured he was probably working and that I would try back at 6. I went to checkout the grocery store (The Fernheim Cooperative). It was a strange sight to see so many white people in South America and it was even stranger that they were speaking German! lol The store was full of freshly perpared German foods like Sausage, Bread, Cheese, and Dairy Products. I tried to buy a chocolate bar at the checkout but was frustrated to find out that only small tools were accepted as barter from travellers. Hahaha, just a joke, they did everything in cash.

 It took about 15 minutes to explore the city so I was forced to spend the rest of my time practicing Spanish in the nice park where the museum was. Filadelfia most likely has the nicest scenery/ public works of the 3 colonies but I did not see Neu-Halbstadt. I finally got a hold of Sander and we met at the grocery store (he works in importing there). Sander was a very nice guy and had pretty darn good English for someone whose only study time was a 3 week program in London. He took me to meet Edward, the town´s mayor who had lived in Canada.

 Ed was a good guy and had a perfect Canadian accent because of his family´s many moves back and forth to British Colombia when growing up.  He invited me for dinner with the family (his daughter and nephew) and we went to Hotel Florida to pick up fish and chips (typical Canadian meal). Ed explained that the fish ´Talapia` was a local river/pond fish that the locals raise. At first I was skeptical when he told me it was better than Cod or Halibut but I tried it and it was really good (not quite on the level of King´s Fair though).

 We than watched the Breakfast Club in English! I felt bad for Ed´s daughter and nephew because I do not think they knew English very well (good thing there were German subtitles at least). It had been a while since I had seen B.C. and it was great for some hard laughs. After the movie ended Ed asked me more in detail about my plan to sleep in the park. I think he was confused because I did not have a tent or jacket with me. In my excitement to leave for the Chaco I forgot to get these things from Klein Motos before they closed. Ed offered that I could sleep in his guest house and after a couple minutes I politely accepted as I realized how cold it was outside.

 Ed´s guest house was quite the place. His father in law had constructed it out of wood entirely by hand. The seams in the wood matched perfectly and you could definitely tell it was built by a carpenter. It had that cozy feeling that most log cabins have. There were North American mountain landscapes paintings. As I laid down in the comfy bed I thought to myself that "This is better than any of the hotels I have stayed at so far."
The next day I had to leave at 8 a.m. because Ed and his family were off to Church. I ate breakfast with Ed and met his wife. She was nice and was interested in all of the details of my trip because she worked in journalism I think. I showed Ed and his wife some pictures and than left so that they could leave to church.

 I went to wait in the park until 2:30 pm when I was supposed to meet up with Sander and see his ranch. Trying to study Spanish for 6 hours nearly killed me! Every hour I would walk to the grocery store and all the convenience stores to try and buy a chocolate bar but they were always closed. After a while I began to curse to myself and wonder what kind society could have their grocery store closed on a Thursday. (It turned out that it was May 1st, a national holiday for Paraguayans).

Finally at 2:30 I met with Sander and we left in his truck to do Ranch work for the rest of the day. We had to pick up 2 bulls and take them to the other side of Filadelfia so they could mate with the females (1 bull per 25 females!) lucky guys we joked! It was very interesting to see how the bulls were loaded on and off the truck. Sander shared his terere (minty flavored iced mate). In Paraguay the locals prefer to drink their mate cold because of how hot the Chaco is. Doing ranch work with Sander was my favorite experience from the Chaco.

 Later we went back to Sander´s house and met his nice wife and got to see his 2003 Honda Africa Twin that was in excellent condition. We had to drop the truck off at Sander´s dad´s house and Sander told me that I could follow him in his Honda and just to make sure I did not go over 70 km. Anxiously but nervously at the same time I went over and put the key in his Africa Twin. When Sander came out he explained that it was his 1980 Honda scooter that we were going to take (I had not seen it before). I was disappointed but relieved at the same time because I did not want to take any chances with such a nice motorcycle.

 Later Sander, his wife, and me went to Christian´s house and watched a video of Sander and Christian´s trip one weekend to ride dirt bikes with their friends. The video was very inspiring and I could no believe how skilled at riding they were. It made me feel like a newbie even know I had 25,000 miles logged on the trip so far. Body protection, other than wearing your helmet sometimes seems to be non existent in the Chaco. I was not surprised though because earlier I had already learned that no one wears seatbelts in the Chaco either.
After this video we watched another video of Sander and Alveroni´s trip to Brazil which was really incredible. They visited all the nice beaches and it looked like they had a great time using their bikes on the beaches. Watching this moto trip to Brazil has made me want to keep my motorcycle and do a trip to Brazil to sometime.

Sander arranged for me to travel back to Asuncion with his dad who was leaving to buy a BMW motorcycle (not mine unfortunately). I stayed at Sander´s house for the night and he woke me up at 4:00 am to go with his dad. For the first 5 seconds after waking up I was incredibly confused about where I was but than I remembered again. I thanked Sander and headed off with his dad for the short drive to Asuncion (4 hours by car).

62. Staying with Marco in Asuncion (04/27/08)

I have been staying with German couchsurfer Marco and his Brazilian girlfriend Chevone for the past 4 days now in Asuncion. Marco is 27 and has a few internet business´s that are pretty successful. He has lived in Paraguay for the past 2 and a half years. His apartment is very nice and has a great view of much of Asuncion including the River Paraguay.

Marco is helping me to get my bike fixed and sell it here. We put an ad in the classified paper here and at first I did not have any calls but tomorrow two men are coming to see the bike at the shop. Marco has recommended me the best motorcycle repair shop in Paraguay and so far I have been very impressed with their work. The name of the shop is Klein Motors and it is located on Espana. Tel. / Fax.: (59521) 660-531

I have been having a great time with Marco in Asuncion. We have gone out almost every night for dinner at a steak buffet place (Marco is vegetarian but he enjoys the selection of vegetables at these places). The Paraguayans are experts at preparing meats too. The best cut of meat to get here is Pecania.

61. Finally making it to Paraguay (04/25/08)

My first impression upon seeing Paraguay was "Oh no, it is Guatemala again!" I enjoyed Guatemala a lot but now that I am nearing the end of my trip it is getting hard to visit countries that lack many basic amenities. The outskirts of Ciudad del Este where the ferry from Argentina dropped me off was not too inviting. The wretched cobblestone road and seeing poor tiny shack after poor tiny shack gave me mixed feelings.

I went to buy some water at the grocery store and was very frustrated to see that my debit card was not in my wallet. I left the damn thing in an atm at Iguazu Falls. Luckily I lost it at this huge tourist destination and not in Ciudad del Este. I immediately went to look for a Casa de Cambio so I could change my US and Uruguay money for Paraguayan money. The search ended up taking 2 hours because I had no idea where the city was and the locals where I was did not seem to know either. After much head scratching I luckily stumbled on the main part of the city.

 The surprising thing about Paraguay is that for as poor as it looks the country is relatively expensive. When touring the chocolate and cookie section of the super market I noticed that there are no local brands and that almost every product is imported. The gas prices are comparable to Uruguay which was about 2x as expensive as Argentina.
                                      (ITAIPU Hydroelectric Dam, one of the largest in the world.)

The views on the highway from Ciudad del Este to Asuncion were very good. It reminded me a lot of the way Colombia looks. It was nice to see the farms, kids playing soccer, and old men riding horses. It
seems like all the action takes place near the road because there are no other paved roads. The drivers kept getting progressively worse though.

60. Making a good friend in Curuzu Cuatia, Argentina (04/23/08)

Driving into Curuzu Cuatia, Argentina I was still a little shaken up from having the gun pointed in my face. I decided that the best thing to do was to use the internet and write my parents and motorcycle buddies to let them know what happened before I made any report. In the internet cafe a man came up and introduced himself and asked me about my trip. His name was Eduardo Longo and he was member of the local motorcycle club "The Coyotes."

We talked for a bit and he asked me where I was staying and I told him that I was camping. Eduardo offered to let me stay at his house and I kindly accepted right away which maybe seemed a bit awkward but I was scared of corrupt police officers looking for me. We agreed to meet in an hour so that I could finish my internet. An hour later Eduardo showed up with a very modified 250cc Harley looking type motorcycle. It was interesting to see all of the gadgets he had on his bike music player, sirens, lights, skull with lights in its eyes, etc.

Eduardo had a very nice family. There was Norma his wife and 2 daughters Erika and Kathleen. They offered me tea, milk, or mate and were happy that I chose Mate. We ate a nice dinner and I told Eduardo about my problem with the police and he said that it would be best to wait and talk to his English speaking friends the next day. That night I slept like a rock and I was very thankful that I was in a safe place for the night after the incident earlier.

We talked to the friends of Eduardo the next day and they told me that the best thing to do was to make a report with the Federal Police in Posadas (because I was going to Paragauy). Eduardo´s friends were very nice. It was a large family who lived on a military base and the father and mother both spoke English. The mother had lived in Texas when she was a child so her English was very good. The father and one of the sons have a rock band and their music sounds pretty good. The name of the group is Rompan Fila and you can find a video of them on youtube.

Eduardo made a really good 'asado´ (like barbeque but cooked on a different sort of grill). Argentinians really know how to make good meat. I think they are probably the best at it in the world but I have never been to Europe, Asia, or Africa. Before lunch I studied Spanish while Eduardo´s daughters studied English. They thought my Spanish responses to questions in my workbook were funny. They had a Spanish/English dictionary and it was nice to look up words I did not know again.

Eduardo helped me work on my bike and we got it pretty shiny after a couple of hours. He knew a journalist who came and interviewed me about my experience with the police. The next day Eduardo had to go to work early so I woke up early too and got ready to leave for Paraguay. We drank some mate and I thanked Eduardo very much for all of his help and than set off on my motorcycle.
BTW (for motorcyclists): If you will be passing through Curuzu Cuatia and want to contact Eduardo you can reach him at Tel (03774) 423727 or Cell (03774) 15637709.

59. Uruguay getting the economy tour and having a gun pointed in my face in Argentina (04/22/08)

After finally crossing the border at 12 pm the next day I was on a mission to make it to Montevideo as quickly as possible. Unfortunately my picture taking suffered greatly for this and I missed taking photos of some beautiful farms and scenic landscapes. It took 6 hours to make it to Montevideo and when I finally arrived the sun was setting so I had to do my best to take photos fast. After some procrastination I decided to call my friend Sebastian and possibly stay another day in Montevideo to explore.

BTW: (For Motorcyclists) There is a ferry from Buenos Aires to Montevideo and I recommend taking it because it is much faster and you do not have to double back (The price is $50 I think). Right now the Fray Bentos border crossing is out because they are rebuilding the bridge. If you want to drive you have to drive all the way up to Paysandu and cross there. The best option is to take the ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento and than drive 2 hours to get to B.A. This is the least expensive and also will have the best scenery I think.

 Sebastian was not there so I decided to camp the night in Montevideo and head back to Argentina the next day (I did not have my tourist visa for Brazil yet). Unfortunately I missed out on one of the most beautiful places in Uruguay: Punta del Este. The drive from Montevideo to Punta del Este has spectacular ocean views.
I camped for the night in Montevideo at a marina and set up my tent next to the shacks of some friendly fishermen. The next day I woke up at dawn and set off for Argentina. I made great time but hardly took a single photo. The riding was utterly painful because I was so down. I crossed the border at Salto into Argentina but I do not recommend crossing it here because the roads from Tacuarembo were very bad with many dangerous turns and sudden changes from pavement to dirt in poorly marked construction sites. It would have been faster to drive from Tacuarembo back to Paysandu and cross there.

 After crossing into Argentina things were going fine until I was stopped at a police checkpoint on Ruta 14 km 341. The officer who stopped me asked to check my papers and than asked me in Spanish if I had the required fire extinguisher. I did not understand so he took me to his car and showed me a fire extinguisher in the back and than took me to the office and showed me a form that said fire extinguishers were required for motorcyclists.
I was very skeptical about whether this was real or not but I did not question him and thought there was a chance that he would just give me a warning. Five minutes later he told me that I would have to pay a fine. After arguing for 10 minutes I asked how much the fine was and he pulled out the fine paper but it did not have a price listed on it. I watched as the officer wrote 1200 pesos. I asked him where the punto  (point) was and he told me that it was 1200 pesos ($400 US). Who did this guy think I was with dirty hands, messy hair, and a beat up stitch jacket?

 After hearing 1200 pesos all doubt in my mind was gone that this was a real regulation. I told the officer that I had never seen a local motorcycle with a fire extinguisher and that it would be very dangerous to carry a pressurized canister on a motorcycle. He responded by making the handcuff gesture multiple times. I asked to see his identification and he told me that I could read what his name was from a stamp that he was going to use on my fine. I told him to show me his wallet but he refused and made the handcuff gesture again. At this point I was really starting to get fed up and I asked for my passport back. The officer told me that he was going to keep it and lock me up. I told him that your passport in private property and no police or immigration official has the right to withhold it from you. He than left the room and I took it back off the desk.

 When the officer returned he asked me for the 10th time how I was going to pay for the ticket. I told him the same old that I did not have any money and he made the handcuff gesture again. Having had enough of this crap I put my hands out for him to put the handcuffs on and asked to make my phone call (I am not sure if you get a phone call after being arrested in Argentina, but I figure you must). He told me that there was no phone call and than took out the handcuffs like he was going to put them on, but than told me to leave.
I walked out of the station taking note of the license plate number of the car inside and when I got back to my motorcycle I took out a pen and wrote the number on my hand. The officer had been watching me from inside and ran out and told me to go back to the bathroom to wash it off. I went to the bathroom and the officer followed me in and closed the door behind him. He took my helmet and threw it on the ground. Than he pulled out his gun and pointed it at my face. I knew that he was going to shoot me but it is still pretty scary to have a loaded gun pointed in your face. I made ducking actions and some fake cry moans. He told me that I better forget this happened.

 I walked back to my motorcycle still remembering the numberS FVK364 (still remember from memory now) and left slowly doing my best to be really scared. I decided that I better wait a good while before stopping and writing the numbers again. After about 10 miles I noticed that it seemed like a suspicious truck was following me very closely for a long time, but it was hard to say whether he was a friend of the police or just a bad driver. After 2 hours of driving I finally stopped in Curuzu Cuatia and wrote the numbers down.

58. The Long Drive to Uruguay (04/20/07)

The Blues were hitting me hard driving to Uruguay. Since Bolivia I had become progressively more home sick. Riding ten hours a day so frequently can quickly become monotonous.

The drive to Uruguay was relatively uneventful until I got within 50 miles of the border and started to enter thicker and thicker smoke from forest fires. The previous day in Buenos Aires I had seen a lot of smoke on the streets and I heard it was from forest fires, but had no idea that they were here. Breathing became hard after an hour and I became nervous after not seeing another motorcyclist for 30 minutes. Fortunately the smoke improved and so did my breathing as I neared the border crossing.

 Crossing the Uruguayan border I did not expect to have any problems. Just before reaching the border a police officer signalled me to pull over and check my papers. As I pulled out my papers from their plastic cover I began to panic when I noticed that the temporary drivers permit was missing. "How the heck do you lose your most important document I asked myself?" The police officer told me that I would need to go to the station with him and pay 100 pesos to get a new one. Not trusting him I told him that I did not have any money because I was about to cross the border and get Uruguay money. He told me that I would need it to cross the border and that if I had 50 pesos he could get it for me. I told him again that I was out of money and that I would stop at the next town and get money. (Looking back at the situation I think the officer was probably just trying to help me out.)

 Once I reached the aduana all the problems began. I used my normal story for the few times that I have been in deep trouble with immigration/aduana and told the officials that I was robbed and the theives stole my papers. Having time beforehand to think about my story helped and I decided to use the actual story of when I got robbed in La Rioja. It made sense that the title and registration to my bike were only copies (the original color copies had been taken by the police in Colombia) but it also looked suspicious that I did not have any real documents to prove the bike was mine.
Unluckily, I got the customs guy who was straight out of Nazi Germany or Franco´s Spain. He was one of those people who was determined to make your life harder. For thirty minutes I talked with this officer and he kept telling me that I better call my parents (as if they could help me in this situation). Than he finally said that the best thing for me to do was to drive back to La Rioja and have the police issue me new papers.

 Luckily, the night shift of aduana officials showed up (made up of younger guys 20-25) and they new good English and were able to explain some of the concerns that my Nazi customs official I had, ie. why I had Canadian citizenship but the bike was from the U.S. The young officials looked through my passport and were able to find the Rio Gallegos entrance stamp that the other guy could not. They told me that they would call Rio Gallegos to get an email copy of my paper and that in the morning I could leave. After about 12 hours of waiting at the aduana station I was finally on the road again. (It turns out I left my customs paper inside a map at Veronica´s grrr)