The Idea

The idea is to follow the spine of the Andes, South, by motorcycle – stitching together a series of aggressive hikes along dirt roads in remote places.  Half of it will be standing on pegs, going fast on loose stuff, cruising down valleys crowned by glaciers.  The other half being at altitude, getting meditative in pain, trying to move quickly up mountains.  So, that’s the blog.  Mountains and motorcycles.  Easy in the saying of it.  Getting here required hacking through mental thickets.  And, bureaucratic ones, too.

If you choose to follow along, as I ride from Santiago, Chile to Ushuaia, then back up to Colombia – I promise to update regularly, tell it frankly, embellish when necessary, and keep in mind that we all have a job to entertain one another.

Shipping The Motorcycle

A text conversation between me and the ‘freight forwarder,’ a guy whose job it is to deal with the shipping company to get my motorcycle to Chile.

Gaston – Steve, I think we are very tight for the vessel

Gaston – Customs most probably won’t allow it

Gaston – I think it is much better if you take the bike for fumigation next Tuesday

Me – But when would it sail? I already have a plane ticket to arrive in Santiago on Feb 2

Gaston – The next leave the 14th and arrive Feb 20

Me – That doesn’t wok

Me – It’s too late

Me – It’s about the weather

Gaston – I know

Me – And I already have a ticket

Me – This has to work, Gaston

Me – What is the cut off date for delivery of the bike to the port?

Gaston – The problem are the 72 hours by law at the port

Me – So, what is the cut off?

Gaston – Should be tomorrow, but tge fumigation abd Jan 1

Me – Global pest management is asking for port cut off and sailing date

Gaston – Holiday

Me – So, tomorrow is the cut off date and Feb 3 is the sailing date?

Gaston – Three days

Gaston – Before the ETA

Gaston – Let me see when that vessel is arriving

Me – Can you provide a clear cut off date?

Endless patience is the first requirement of the trip.  As long as everyone is slowing things down, that’s totally fine.  Customs agents, shipping lines, and embassies have a clearly defined set of rules and dates, though.  So, set aside three times as much as you need and roll with it.

My plan was to ship my motorcycle from LA to Santiago by container ship.  ROR.  Or, Roll On Roll-off.  As distinct from putting the bike in a crate that gets thrown into a bigger box.  Many pros and cons to each method.  In a month we will find out if my choice gets the desired result.  Exciting.

 

Loving a Motorcycle

There’s a picture buried in a family album of my Dad on a moped in our driveway in South Africa, my sister Lisa sitting behind him.  He’s wearing thick black framed glasses and a V-neck sweater over a button down.  Lisa is in her school  uniform and wearing a beret.  She’s probably five or six.  The best thing about the picture is their smiles.  They are trying to contain them, to wear appropriately civilized expressions for the photo – but the manic joy of motorcycles gleams through.  Tracing a curiosity back through the history of one’s own predilections can be a morass.  But this one was easy.   My love of motorcycles started there.  Watching my Dad on his moped.  Those smiles got me.

Why did it take another 28 years until I bought my own?  Anti-motorcycle conditioning from my Mom, is my guess.  The first bike I bought was a 1984 Suzuki Katana, heavily ridden.  Its high center of gravity, poor brakes, weight, and extreme power were more or less designed to slaughter the careless.  When I sold it, I watched in horrified silence as a skinny hipster gingerly wavered off on it.  But, how could I object?

An ill-advised Italian bike followed.  So pretty, people would stop me and ask about it.  “It’s a Laverda Ghost Strike.  An Italian tractor company originally.  The brand’s been revived.”  It took me one full year to find a buyer, after endless well-published electrical difficulties.

My Yamaha YZF 600R performed so beautifully.  We traveled across all of Central and Northern California.  Nobody stopped to ask about that bike, she was a creeper.  The fastest I’ve ever been was 155 miles an hour – on that bike.  So nimble, yet stable.  There are a few sections of road we rode together, flowing series of S turns, that I can conjure up at will.

Then a Triumph Street Triple R.  Three cylinders.  The torque you want in the city, plus mid end performance for canyon rides.  Perfect for the street.

Now, a dual sport.  Because that’s the natural progression.  11 inches of suspension travel means a tall bike.  No more crouching over and stressing 49 year old knees.  350 pounds with fuel equals very little drama in turns and entirely credible performance in dirt.  That’s it.  The right bike for a 6,000 mile South American journey.  A 2017 Husqvarna 701 Enduro with the following modifications:

  • A rally fairing
  • Dual USB plug mounted into the fairing
  • GPS dock installed into the fairing
  • Heated grips
  • Seat Concepts aftermarket seat
  • Foam air filter
  • Wings titanium exhaust
  • Lithium Ion battery

Currently, it’s love.

Turning a Motorcycle

Do you want to know how to turn a motorcycle?  It’s probably not the way you think.  The wheels of a motorcycle act as a large gyroscope.  Spinning with comforting kinetic force.  Changing direction is a discomfort to the machine.  It has to be forced.  Here’s the weird part.  If you want to turn left, you don’t turn the handlebars left.  You turn them right!

Think of the motorcycle as a wild steer, charging senselessly.  Mercilessly grab the horns and twist it’s head to the right.  Those stretched eyes gape at the sky and the grand beast falls to the left.  Turning a motorcycle is controlled falling.  Knock it off the center with a violent act, then hit the gas to keep it upright.  Opposing force.  Perfect balance.  You feel every moment of it.  When it all works well, it puts you into an ecstatic mental state.  Thought and emotion melded into one pure whole.

The Last Ride of Esteban Paz

“Well, I guess this is it.  Might be the last time we see you,” said with a twisted grin and a had on my shoulder.

“Bob and Grace say that Colombia should be avoided at all costs.  Too dangerous,” delivered with conviction and authority.  “How do they know anything about Colombia,” I ask?  “They’re vacationing in Mexico, it’s closer to South America.”

“Dude, let’s talk about personal protection.  You should bring a gun you can strap inside the frame of your motorcycle.”  “Yeah, no.”

All well meaning.  But the level of fear in America for foreign lands is off the chart.  The conservative media has pulled the conversation regarding immigration so far right that even liberals agree there is Real Danger out there, even when they disagree on how to address it.  Musing about my route and noting the empty grandeur of Patagonia inevitably elicits a comment about, “watching one’s back.”  There are smiles on the faces of my interrogators, but they are thin and brittle.

And here I am in Santiago.  Sitting at an outdoor cafe in the Patio Bellavista, about to bust out a cigar to go with my wine.  Earlier, I found a shaded and empty park bench by the river where I napped for 20 minutes, the city lazily strolling by.  Ok, I’m not doing that in the slums of Bogota, but still.  Expectations around how much danger I might find myself in, versus the joy  that’s in store for me, seem unbalanced.

“Steve, if you publish a travelogue about your trip, I’ve got the perfect title.  The Last Ride of Esteban Paz.  Yup, that pretty well sums it up.

Santiago – the shaded city

There’s a subtle game being played by the summer residents of Santiago.  The object is to dodge the punishing rays of the sun, to slip between shadows.  Patches of shade form a loose blue net that catches what little breeze there is more effectively than the dessicated blown out plains of the Calles.

Daytime hours are slow and furtive.  If you whisper, maybe the sun won’t notice you.  The afternoon stretches far longer than an Angeleno in February could reasonably expect.  Brutalist structures baking the city with reflected heat stored in their concrete walls to radiate past the winking out of the sun.  No wonder the city has decided to wake at 10pm.

And wake, it does.  The usual mix we’ve come to expect, in these post social media days.  Street hustlers in bedazzled jeans, hawking everything.  Hipster dudes with their unique glasses and wild hair.  High-waisted daisy dukes on every third woman.  Preppy businessmen in checked shirts.  High and tight hair cuts all around.  Maybe a guy is pissing against a palm tree on the divider of a major Calle.  Sure.  Or, the trash blows in greater drifts in the outer suburbs here than elsewhere.  But culture has gone global.

The dust does have a different scent.  I lack the skills to characterize it.

Santiago – In the hands of strangers

I’d already quit my Hollywood job, rented my condo, and taken a 15 hour flight to get to Santiago, Chile.  Might as well push my discomfort levels to “critical” and stay at a stranger’s apartment for my first three nights in South America.  Found someone to host me through couchsurfing.org.  An Internet 1.0 site that’s still vibrant – an example of the egalitarian roots of the World Wide Web.

Rocio, my host in Santiago Centro, tells the following story to describe herself.  “At a work conference I met an American that had just finished a ten year stay in Japan.  He was outwardly American, but inwardly Japanese.  He said to me, “Rocio, can’t you just be a little less Latina?”  Can you believe that?  To ask someone to be less representative of their culture?  No.  I’m going to touch people without consent, help without being asked, and I won’t allow there to be any space between us.  It’s who I am.”

Along with Rocio, Roberto, Sofia, and Nicholas were packed into her apartment on the evening I arrived.  Rocio has a grand circle of interesting people with open invitations to her apartment.  Roberto was a weight lifter from Valdivia with excellent English – in town only for a few days and just leaving with his girlfriend Sofia, as I arrived.  Nicholas, a fresh romantic interest of Rocio’s, had just unexpectedly returned from the Atacama desert where he’d been shooting a film for a month and a half.  He and Rocio were happy to see one another in the way that only young lovers are, even if the timing made my arrival complicated.  And, given that my Spanish is, “basically non-existent,” as Rocio puts it – I was like a language-based cock-blocker.  I could talk to Rocio.  She could talk to Nicholas.  But, he and I basically smiled at one another, when all he really wanted to be doing was canoodling.  Once we figured out that he and I both spoke more French than I spoke Spanish, things got easier.  Even so, I removed myself to eat dinner by myself at 11:30pm and to write these words.  I’m toasting those two with one of Chile’s many delicious Cabs.  Here’s to “understanding,” as tenuous a concept as that can sometimes be.

Santiago – history can shout all it wants

Pinochet’s dictatorship that tortured and “disappeared” tens of thousands of Chileans only fell in 1990.  Just a single generation divides that awful stretch from the skinny jeans and mobile phones of today’s Chilean youth.  Good thing there’s a museum of remembrance in Santiago.

One morning, like every other, Santiago woke to the rumble of tanks rolling down the streets.  The President took his own life that day, rather than submit to an authority established by force.  But, not before noting that time would erode the rule of these criminals.  With no moral authority, undemocratic regimes are bound to crumble – they’re hollow and bereft.

A lesson that might comfort those of us living uneasily in Trump’s America.  And, if that sounds like a hysterical statement, note that my Venezuelan Uber driver compared Trump to Maduro during our ride to an open air Jazz concert in Providencia.  It’s not just me.

Viva la democracia!

San Antonio – my first major stumble

Democracy is on my mind.  Maybe it’s the history of South America.  I can’t help but muse from the hotel bar overlooking San Antonio’s port that, waterfronts are surely the most democratic of vacation spots.  On one hand, you’ve got to be swimming in cash to enjoy some of the best like the Amalfi Coast or a beach house in Malibu.  Places where the sea is turquoise or a shade of green that hints at profundity.

But where the ocean washes limply gray against a pier soaked in diesel and fish guts, any family is welcome.  Greeted by throngs of street salesmen hawking bracelets, smoked fish, face painting, old leather jackets, a pile of freshly gutted rabbits, plastic binoculars, etc, etc.  There will almost certainly be an open air fish market, the wares stacked on metal tables and regularly doused with water for lack of ice.  Touts jostle the crowds and try to lure them into one of a dozen Marisco joints stacked along the quay.  Small fishing vessels bob along with smiling seals darting amongst them.  On the horizon, the apparatus of a busy port.  Cranes and warehouses, container ships at anchor.  But even on the shabbiest of waterfronts there is a festive air.

I’m finding it difficult to join in this most democratic of pleasures, because I have been quite effectively screwed by my freight forwarder, Gaston, and currently find myself dead in the water and completely at his mercy, with no word from the scoundrel.

Broom Group, the shipping agent, has not received payment from Gaston for my motorcycle freight.  Disturbing.  “Ok,” I thought, “I’ll just pay twice for the shipping and then badger or sue Gaston to get back my payment.”  Except it doesn’t work that way.  Gaston, as the originator of the freight has to relinquish method of payment for me to complete the transaction.  And, so far, he’s not answering texts, calls, emails, or Whatsapps from me or the Broom Group.  So, here I sit, smoking cigars, contemplating the nature of waterfronts and marveling, yet again, at how little control any of us really has <sigh>.