Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Adv #7 Continued: Work, work, work ..... scouting routes and riding "The Road of Death."

Forrest Lange says: "Now, because I'd been a salesman, an adventure tour guide, a world traveler by motorcycle, and an overall pretty decent guy, the folks at Moto Rider Ltd. got together and offered me a ..... fine job." (Cut to Eric riding around in circles on a motorcycle.)

So that's where we left off last time, right? After touring Bolivia with Daniel, we agreed on a plan to have me work for his new company: Moto Rider Ltda. Briefly explained, we're a tourism company buying new BMW motorcycles, and making them available for tourists to rent or use on guided tours we'll be organizing throughout Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. (I've got a job working with motorcycles now?)

Aside from these countries having incredibly under-developed tourism potential, the world all over has seen a huge increase of motorycle tourism and travel in recent years. (I guarantee Peter and I are not the only guys that have ridden from the U.S. to South America this year.) Add to this trend the fact that the famous Dakar Rally is now held annually here in Chile and Argentina, and I think Moto Rider has an incredible future as a business making the BMW motorcycles available for people to witness these beautiful countries. Be sure to check out our (unfinished) website at and you'll see more about the company, including a chance to read the "who we are" part about your favorite bald motorcycle rider!

Having driven the company truck down to Santiago in late July, the plan was that I'd be there for at least the first couple of months helping to get the company started......and especially from the sales standpoint, that seemed like a good idea for all of us. (At this point, only Daniel and Jaime Roessler were working on starting this. Both Chileans that speak English quite well, but if we're marketing ourselves mainly to English-speaking countries, a native-speaker might be important?)

Those plans for me to start in Santiago changed rapidly though when we had a sudden need to give a bike to a customer up in Antofagasta, and after just two days in Santiago, I hopped an early flight back north to coordinate a motorcycle rental. Daniel, Jaime, and I had talked about things, and it was decided that we'd best plan a specific tour route, step-by-step before we go marketing it. So that was my first major assignment on the job: Starting in Antofagasta, I left my KTM parked at the hotel and set out with one of Moto Rider's new 1200 GS's on what was supposed to be about a 3 week journey searching routes and hotels in Northern Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

(Below is a photo of "my office" for the first month on the job with Moto Rider. Not bad, eh? Getting paid to ride a new BMW through South America and plan tour routes?)

From Antofagasta, climbing up the western side of the Andes, I spent one night in San Pedro de Atacama and started all my research on which hotel options best fit the types of tours we wanted sell. (That was kind of a nice change, too. I've been camping and living in some pretty down-trodden places for 14 months at this point, and now I'm being paid to seek out and stay in the 4 and 5-star hotels?) I spent one night at the Alto Atacama resort there in San Pedro, having been greeted by my fellow KTM rider and friend Alvaro who is the manager of this absolutely beautiful hotel. Would have gladly stayed there longer, but I had to keep moving onward with my mission by crossing the border at Paso Jama on the way to the stunning Purmamarca, Argentina. See below one small portion of the incredible twists and turns at the finish of that ride over the border!
(Below, scenery of the "Mountain of 7 Colors" that surrounds the small town of Purmamarca.)

The turn north from Purmamarca took me to the border with Bolivia at La Quiaca where another on one of those typical border crossing stories took about half of my day. Keeping in mind that this was still the middle of winter in August and extremely cold at 12,000 feet all the time, I hustled all the way to Tupiza, Bolivia on awful dirt roads and found this neat little town. Pictures show how the city stays alive with people playing tennis and using pool tables outside near the center of town. There's definitely a neat vibe about Tupiza.

It proved important to be seeking out these tour routes and know exactly what to expect before actually taking tourists along for the ride. Does the road exist like the map says? What conditions are the "road" in? Are there river crossings like the one in the picture below? I made it through this washed out road just fine, but that's something to think about if we're going to return with what might be some more "hesitant" tourist-riders.
These were some long, tough days of riding for sure. Riding all day long with GPS, yes I was. But it's GPS here with very little use, cause there's basically no mapping information available on Bolivia in such remote areas. Each time I made it to the next city, I had to hustle around town figuring out which hotels were the best, asking directions, talking with managers, building a profile on each hotel.......and all in Spanish? After that of course I had to unpack everything, organize all the details of the ride that day, organize the profiles on the hotels.....whah, whah, whah....I know. But it was a challenge, I swear.

Arriving again in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Potosi, Bolivia, I again had the chance to spot some more of the city and of course some interesting people and faces (Like this one below)

"Ma'am, I don't care how good you looked on those posters 134 years ago, it doesn't make me want to buy your bread." ------------------- "What? That's your daughter? that you mention it.......I am kind of hungry.........."

Headed further up into Bolivia from Potosi to the nation's capital of Sucre, I noticed all these people gathering in what must have been about a 200-person town. Chatting with the locals, apparently I had just stumbled across their annual "Carrera de Burros" (Burro Race) and I arrived right in the middle of the action. Way out in the distance, the jockeys were working away on their burros, as the whole town laughed and cheered them on and I snapped off some action-shots : ) You can see the winner below arriving back at the staging area and folks gather to see the champ. Not to get all sappy, but there was something really heart-warming about seeing such a small town gather and such a simple thing entertaining folks.

I continue to be impressed by the scenery in Bolivia and I promise you will not be disappointed if you ever get the chance to visit. So unfortunate though is that seemingly all of the countries down here still don't have any kind of control over waste disposal or any "care" to keep their lands clean of it. Not only to people just toss whatever they want out of their car windows, but you'll also find pits like this one just outside of the cities along the road where people just start throwing their trash. One day after the next, more cars and trucks just show up and dump their trash, letting it blow all over with no control. I mean, it doesn't stop some of the locals (below) from enjoying it.......but come on Evo Morales........your country is too beautiful for this!

So finally, I got to see La Paz! The largest city in Bolivia is quite a site, described to me once as being like a "giant ant hill." I tell ya, it's about that crazy of a place. Imagine the busiest city you've ever been in and then increase the congestion and chaos about 10 times. (It made NYC look spacious from a pedestrian standpoint.) Taxis, buses, motorcycles, and people running all over the streets with virtually no control by traffic lights or police, and EVERYONE is honking their horns.

A main reason we want a tour route that includes La Paz is because it allows us to ride the famous "Camino de la Muerte" or in English......"The Road of Death." THIS WAS SO COOL! Do a little Google search for those keywords and check out some of the pictures out there that turned out better than mine (I was there on a very foggy day.)
Holding the title as "The most dangerous road in the world," this ride starts up at 16,000 feet in the clear thin air, and slowly drops about 10,000 feet over a winding narrow path down into the Bolivian jungle. It's reputation as "the most dangerous" devloped over years because of the extremely high percentage of people that die falling over the edge trying to pass this road. In it's record year, 320 people fell to their death, which is an extremely high number considering the small numbers of people actually trying to pass it. Like I said before, my pictures are few because it was such a foggy day, but you could also check this YouTube link for a good overview of what it's like:

The Road of Death is absolutely stunning with low-hanging clouds and mountain-lined landscapes all the way. Near the start, you'll see mountain bike tour guides briefing their tourists on the rules of the road. Rules like "the traffic flows on the opposite side." Meaning, those of us riding down the mountain actually have to do ride on the left (the cliff drop-off side) so that car and truck drivers have better visibility to keep themselves from running off the edge.

Another guideline we have to follow is that you never......ever look off the cliff into the abyss below while you're moving. It doesn't matter how good of a biker or motorcycle rider you are, the natural tendency we all have is to follow where our eyes are looking. (Ex: Don't stare at the rock in the middle of the road, cause you'll end up hitting it probably.) Same was true here, and I admit......I almost got "caught" looking while riding at one point. Not only is this road very narrow to begin with, but with almost no warning it'll lose 1/3 of it's width because of a washout or rockslide, and if you're riding down the cliff-side like you're supposed to.....that means the road before you can pretty much disappear! Did I mention that it's reported to be over a 1900 foot drop straight down in some parts of the road? Again, too foggy the day I was there to see, but wow does that make for one beautiful atmosphere descending down into the Bolivian jungle.
(Below, mountain bikers posing for a shot pretty close to "the edge.")

The next couple of pictures show one of the many memorials for the thousands of people who have fallen to their deaths here. I zoomed in as far as my 18x zoom camera would go, and sure enough........way below this could still see the wreckage of a car or truck that once went over.

For sure though.....the stunning scenery combined with a bit of fear makes for one great experience.......and if you're going to be in Bolivia, don't miss the chance to ride The Road of Death!

(Near the bottom of the Road, a Dad is taking his girls to school in the town of Yungas.)
So after La Paz, I needed to head further westt to Copacabana, Bolivia .... right on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It's a short half-day ride, and part of that time is spent on a lake ferry that is the only way of reaching Copacabana. Costs about one dollar, takes about 20 minutes, and sure is a fun way to continue all this travel. Guess I haven't been on a boat at this point since the Cap Blanche (aka Jeanne) all the way back in January?

Anyway, more hotels and research was in store for me there in Copacabana, and I had yet another incredible sunset to watch from a balcony looking over Lake Titicaca. Sure have seen alot of these since I started travelling. Never gets old to me......

So after Bolivia, I needed to head back to the northern edge of Arica, Chile before crossing into Peru where I would search routes for Cuzco and Macchu Piccu. I knew that because of registration and ownership of the motorcycle, we needed to return to Chile for paperwork reasons before going to Peru. In a funny coincidence though, just a few hours before I crossed the border into Peru on a Friday morning, a story came out in the newspapers. The story detailed how 800+ cars had left Chile in the year prior and never returned from Peru. (An obvious concern for importing/tax reasons.) Because of this news, all the border officials for Peru were immediately reminded of their own law that nobody had been enforcing, and requires some extra paperwork steps to prevent the illegal importation of vehicles.

Anyway, after sitting around a few more days there in Arica, (waiting for the weekend and a holiday to pass) Daniel, Jaime and myself eventually said it was too much paperwork trouble for me to get into Peru at that point, and there were plenty of other things I could be doing in Antofagasta. The tentative plan was for me to end up living there in Antofagasta and start getting business going for us while it was still winter time and very cold in Santiago and places further south.
So the final picture below shows how I ended up back in Antofagasta, getting our office situation straight and doing things like getting our motorcycle storage container positioned at the rail yard near our office. Ana Maria (back to us in the picture) had just been hired to act as administrative support for us there in Antofagasta, so at least I wouldn't be working alone.

Well this has been another long post, but's been over 2 months since I updated this! And of course, more has changed since this final picture with regards to where I'm living and I'll have to explain more of that soon. The delay in the blog post is partially because of technical issues Blogspot seems to be having, but also because it's weird for me to just write a blog about my working life and career instead of all the travel I'd done up to this point. Well then again....I guess my job still fits into the same category of "travel and adventure," and as long as I'm living outside the United States, I'll consider my life exactly that : )

Friday, September 4, 2009

Adv #7 Continued: Did someone say "Bolivia?"

(Again, in the voice of Forrest:) “And would you believe it? I got to go to Bolivia.”

It was actually a real debate I had going on about whether or not to go to Bolivia. I’d heard so many good things about it, missing this country sounded like it would be a mistake. On the flipside though, while in San Pedro I was meeting many people that reminded me we’re in the middle of winter here, and the altitude in Bolivia would make it even colder than where we were in San Pedro (where it was -8 celsius pretty much every night.) Anyone that knows me knows that I absolutely despise cold weather, and word was that -26 celsius was pretty regular every night in the parts I'd be traveling through at this time of year.

About a month before I was in San Pedro, I had met with Daniel Larrain, a business owner from Santiago and we had talked about me working for his new motorcycle touring company, “Moto Rider.” My timing to be in the north was perfect because Daniel, his nephew, daughter, and her boyfriend were all coming north with a couple of the new BMW’s to tour Bolivia. I was asked to join for the week-long tour….giving us a perfect chance to talk further and understand his plans for this company he’s starting up. Great for me also, cause now instead of having to travel alone through Bolivia, I’d have a crew to travel with in case something happens. (It can be very hard to find fuel in Bolivia, if the bike breaks-down, chances of finding parts or help are extremely unlikely, etc.)

So Daniel and the family and I met up in Calama in northern Chile, and immediately headed for the Bolivia border, staying in Ollague for one night. (That's Daniel and I in the first photo above. No, I haven’t put on that much weight….just stuff in my pockets.) The scenery in those northern Andes Mountains is just outstanding! Like on my trips around San Pedro, the natural colors in the mountains are absolutely incredible.

After the always-long process of getting through the paperwork to finally get into Bolivia, (Daniel in the Customs office below) that great “rush” hit me again that…….”I’m in Bolivia!” Another new country… never gets old.

Shortly after crossing the border though, my motorcycle had its first significant break-down in what is about 23,000 miles of riding since Atlanta. Just riding along, the engine quit completely, and I knew fuel was not the problem. Didn’t take me long to figure what had happened though…… the roads were so bad and bumpy (riding “washboard” we call it) that the positive battery cable just completely broke near the battery post from all the vibration and pounding. You can see us working on the bike in the background while Nico walks across a small bog. With a little more time, I certainly could have fixed the cable and kept riding, but it was already quite late in the day, and with still a few hundred kilometers of riding left to get to Uyuni, we decided we’d just put my bike on the trailer, and fix it once near a workshop. (Not so bad….that just meant I had to ride one of the new BMW’s instead.)

So we finally made it to the town of Uyuni in the dark, after a pretty long and tough day of riding. Took us quite a while to find this hotel that some friends of Daniel’s had recommended, but what a great surprise the Hotel Luna Salada hotel is! In the middle of all the dirt and nasty roads, right on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, (Uyuni Salt Flat) is this great hotel……entirely made from salt. Dario, the owner (in the first picture below) explained how every brick that this hotel was made from was hand-chopped with axes from the Salar, just about 1km from where the hotel stands. Check out the pics below. The registration desk there in the hotel? Made from salt. The entire floor of the hotel? Loose salt grains and pebbles. The walls? Salt. Furniture and tables? Made from salt. Except for some obvious items in the bathrooms and kitchen, they really made a beautiful hotel here entirely from salt, and I highly recommend staying here for anyone going near Uyuni. There are two other hotels made from salt in the area, but this one is the best by far.

Next morning, Daniel, Jacinta, Alfredo, and Nico went out into the Salar to look around with the motos and start taking pictures to be used for the Moto Rider website, and I took my bike into town to get it fixed. There in town, I could not resist taking a picture of this little munchkin with her mom’s permission. If you think this picture is cute, you should have seen the look on her face when I turned the camera around and showed her the picture of herself. An expression and feeling I’ll never, ever forget.

So “Nelson” was the guy in the picture helping repair my battery cable (cause there’s no way you’ll find a similar part like that in a small town like this.) Following the repair, I quickly hustled out to meet the crew, finally arriving for my first time on the Salar de Uyuni! Adventure motorcycle riders all over have seen pictures of this place for sure, so it was really exciting to finally be out there myself. It’s the largest salt flat in the world, measuring 4,085 square miles at an elevation of just over 11,000 feet. Interesting to note is that the salar supposedly holds over half of the world’s lithium reserves, and there’s a lot of talk about companies like Mitsubishi and others starting to build hybrid vehicles here, the lithium obviously being used in the batteries.

Taking potential photos for the Moto Rider website, all the fun ideas using the illusion-factor come into mind (below.)

(Daniel, above, muscling up a couple of bikes; Alfredo, so casually holding two BMW's below.)

(Jacinta, Daniel's daughter with her cousin Alfredo. No doubt, traveling down here is much for fun for me when I have good company to spend time with.)

So along with being absolutely beautiful……very clean and absolutely wide open, the Salar is obviously a great place to satisfy that need for speed! See a picture below that shows how there are some worn-down pathways formed by tourist traffic going to see the major sites in the Salar. It's actually much, much smoother than I thought it would be, but if you go off those roads into the natural grooved pattern shown..........yea, you’ll feel the vibrations. But on the worn-down roads, you just have to watch out for a few rough spots, and other than that, go as fast as you want. Julius managed to get up to 195 kph (about 120mph) and kept that pace for around 10 minutes at one point. I know he can go a lot faster, but with the sidecases on causing more wind-drag, and the 11,000 foot elevation, there’s not a lot of oxygen to help him be his strongest. Still fun though! And you have to make good time traveling out there, cause there’s nothing around for like 90 miles in any direction once you’re in the middle.

Except for Isla Incahuasi, and Isla Pescado of course. Eventually out there in the middle, you’ll run across these cactus-covered islands that just pop up out of the salt for what appears to be no reason. I guess Isla Incahuasi even has a restaurant on it. MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM
Also important to mention here is how tough it’s been… on a planet full of dark-haired beauties the past 9 months.
Yep, I did run out of gas in the salar as the sun was falling and it was getting pretty cold, pretty quick. Fortunately Roberto from Spain and his family were riding by and offered a bit of gas to get me back to the east edge of the salar and the Hotel Luna Salad once again. Thanks Roberto! See you around Antofagasta….

Done with the salar for now, we headed up toward Potosi and then Oruro, making our way through what might be the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in 15 months of traveling. The final 60 km from Uyuni to Potosi is absolutely jaw-dropping, especially if you catch the late-afternoon sunset light. I was on the BMW, not own bike, so my camera was not as quickly available, and I missed a lot of photo opps for the remainder of this trip. (My bike was back on the trailer again, cause leaving Uyuni, one of the bolts that holds the handlebars on rattled out and left me with barely-attached handlebars.)

One of the reasons for this trip was to test the truck and trailer that would be used for Moto Rider tours. (To carry a spare motorcycle for our tourists in case a motorcycle breaks down.) Glad we put this thing to the test! Cause after two initial problems with parts bending or breaking, one of the leaf-springs finally broke, leaving us on the side of the road with tires that were being chewed up by the low-hanging trailer. The truck had its fair share of electrical problems, too, but we were able to still finish with it.

Thoroughly disappointed with the issues with the trailer, Daniel decided we’d just dump it on the side of the road in Bolivia, and make the manufacturer build us a new one. Tough part about that was, I had to do some “mending” to my motorcycle with the handlebar situation, because without the trailer….I had to ride my bike. Which brings us to another reminder for all people riding motos long-distance: Good strong tie-down straps, and plastic zip-ties can fix so much stuff! I rigged up the bars just right so it wasn’t an issue, and riding slow and easy would be no issue. Sure enough…..all the way to Iquique, Chile… wasn’t a problem.
(Some small town of like 100 people, and Nico's giving this kid what might be the thrill of a lifetime on the BMW for a quick spin around the town. His expression was priceless.)

Above is a good example of how the roads in Bolivia sometimes just "disappear," and you're stuck trying to wiggle over to another path that might still work. And below shows pretty well the ever-present sand storms on the east side of the Andes Mountains. I've actually had to buy goggles to wear under my helmet now, cause the shield on the helmet doesn't do enough to keep sand out of my eyes.

I met Jose, known as "PPS" at his workshop in Iquique and we worked on my handlebars to secure them better until I found the right parts. Known as "PPS" for some reason having to do with "GPS," Jose is famous for knowing every road, trail, and site in northern Chile, so as I'll soon explain, we might be working together soon. Nos vemos pronto, amigo!

The rest of the ride down the coast to Antofagasta will be a great finish to any tour. Sun on your back, those beautiful coastal mountains and dunes to the left, and clear blue water to the right…’s a great 400 kilometers.

Amazingly, I wasn’t able to feel the damage to Julius’s front wheel even when riding on smooth pavement, but finally back in Antofagasta, I noticed he’d suffered some damage probably somewhere on the nasty roads in Bolivia. (Fortunately, I’ve been able to get a repair to this in Santiago for about $50, and it looks like it will hold up just fine.)

The good news is, this tour ended with Daniel and I making some specific plans for me to start working for him, and just like that……for the first time in about 10 months……I HAVE A JOB! The ultimate idea is that I’ll be leading folks on Moto Rider’s motorcycle tours once the company is up and running, but in the meantime, I’m really kind of a “jack of all trades” worker. (More on that in the next email.) My first job though was to get the truck and a bunch of gear back to Santiago on a two-day drive.

So with Julius’s front wheel going with me to Santiago for those repairs, I parked him at the hotel where we are opening another office, had a little talk with him about what a good boy he is, and said goodbye to my pal. Initially, the plan was that I’d be working in our Santiago office for a couple of months, so it was to be a pretty long time apart!

The drive south with the company truck from Antofagasta to Santiago s a pretty simple 18 hours or so, and it gave me the chance to see “El Mano del Desierto” one more time. People are always comparing their hand-size to mine, so it was interesting to be on the other side of that comparison for once. But what is that thing this time on the thumb of the hand? Wasn't there last time I visited....

Why............or what .......what is that..........I can't tell quite.........

Is that who I think it is?

Are you serious? Ladies and's Greg Matzek! What's he doing here in Chile? I tell ya.......that guy gets around. Radio shows.....television shows.....Brewer's games........what a star. MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM
Ha, ha.....miss ya pal. More updates coming soon, and I'll explain more about this job with Moto Rider. It's pretty amazing all the great things that have happened, and continue to happen to me in the 14+ months since I left my home in Atlanta. More in store, for sure.