Monday, February 23, 2009

Adv #7 Continued: Settling into Chile and checking things out

(Perspective: I’m posting this from Hostal Providencia on the eastern edge of Santiago, and now it really feels like I’m a long way from home. On my first full day in Chile, the waiter serving me lunch asked in broken English “Where are you from?” I replied, “The United States.” He looked amazed and said, “Oh, really… wife is from Switzerland.” (With a tone suggesting there was some geographic similarity between the U.S. and Switzerland and I might know his wife.)

After 10 days of great experience aboard the Cap Blanche, we arrived right on schedule at the port of Valparaiso, Chile the afternoon of January 31st. What a site it was after so much time out in the middle of the ocean! Pictures didn’t show much because it was so foggy, but the backdrop of steep hills in Valparaiso forms an arena-like setting with our ship on the center stage of the bay. We had to set anchor for a few hours until the Queen Mary 2 got out of the way for us and we eventually tied up to the pier around 9pm at night. The ship wouldn’t actually unload until the early hours of the next morning which gave us the chance to run into the city and check it out before spending our last night in our cabins.

First impressions are the ones that last, right? My first impression of Chile was that of the people, and how absolutely friendly and helpful they are. Whether we were exchanging currency, asking for directions, or just ordering a drink, they were absolutely wonderful to us. We walked around and noticed a few restaurants like “Hamburg” which clearly was of German influence and also made it feel different from Central America. Only a few hours were spent in the city and then we headed back to the boat to prepare for a full day of packing, getting the bikes off the ship…and of course customs paperwork!

Using a different crane because the vessel was now docked on the port side, we swung each bike across the ship and gently set them on the pier as a pretty significant crowd developed to watch these bikes arrive. Knowing the crew better at this point helped ease the concern of lifting my bike, but it’s still quite unsettling to see the focal point of your journey dangling high above the ship like that and so close to the water. (Although Dmitry did set my bike down too quickly, so it ended up briefly laying on its side about 1 foot from the water. No damage though.)

With our bikes and gear safely on the pier, we continued with our goodbyes to our friends on the Cap Blanche. Sasha was quick to take the photo opportunity on the bike and it sounds like he’s been inspired to shop for one back home in the Ukraine. As with most travel situations, I found that the people aboard the ship are what leave me with the fondest memories. Some great guys on that ship, and I sure hope to meet up with them again someday.

Chilean customs was closed on Sunday, so our bikes were put in storage overnight before we spent all of Monday running from one office to another with the help of Pablo, Cristo, and Sebastiano from the customs agency to help us through the hassle and avoid as many charges as possible. Fortunately, the long days of the year kept it light out when I ran out of gas running between offices at about 7:30pm. Since Peter was also almost out of gas and siphoning from one motorcycle to the other was not working, we just used his boot and motorcycle to push me through a 2 kilometer tunnel to a gas station back in the town. (Unfortunately no pictures were taken, but please understand…pushing a motorcycle with another one is something that requires a bit of concentration!)

(Above: Faking the look of "glee" as we continue to drag through paperwork past 7:00 at night.)

So with our bikes off the ship and the freedom to do whatever we wanted, I just had to figure out what I wanted to do next. Peter has family and friends all over Chile and Argentina, and I’ve wanted to settle into a job, so after buying lunch in Santiago for some of the Hamburg Sud guys that helped us get transport from Panama, Peter and I said our goodbyes and parted ways just a couple of days after arriving in Chile. (Cue the highlight reel : ) It’s amazing to think about all the places we’ve been, people we’ve met, and adventure we shared having just met each other about 4 months earlier. We’ve talked a couple of times since then, and I was invited to join him in the south with his family, but I’ve just had the feeling of settling in to the Santiago area for now. Surely Peter and I will keep in touch and possibly ride again somewhere in the future. We sure did meet enough people along the way who suggested riding-reunions for all of us to meet up again.

Late in 2008, my cousin’s wife, Nicole had told me that her sister Michelle was living in Valparaiso, and since I’m so fond of Nicole, I just had to give her sister a call. Just hearing Michelle’s beautiful Midwestern voice was such a refreshing taste of familiarity after being in Latin America for over two months! Michelle and her boyfriend Carlos met up with Peter and I for pizza just after we got through with customs, and quickly became fun new friends to be around. In a tremendous display of generosity, they invited me to stay in their spare bedroom until I figure out my work and living situation. So in addition to already having new friends in Chile, I’ve been invited to numerous gatherings of Carlos’s family and friends who have been extremely welcoming in every way. More on this in the next post, but let’s just say for now that a real highlight is being able to live like a Chilean, and not like a tourist. What a great way to learn about a country and its culture....getting to spend time with such nice people. (And in a funny coincidence, Carlos, his Aunt, and Mother all work at the Hamburg restaurant I had taken a picture of the night before I met them!)
Of course my beloved KTM was due for a bit of freshening up, too. New oil, the fix of a small leak and a few other things were needed, and fortunately the KTM-Chile dealerships owned by Roland Spaarwater are quite an improvement over the shops we’d seen since Guatemala City. These are such great motorcycles and they have such a solid reputation in the riding community, it’s a bit puzzling why the dealer network in Central America still pales in comparison to the BMW scene. (You know KTM is great when you see they even have KTM toasters that put the KTM logo right on the bread. Ha! Kidding of course, but see the pics below. In many ways though, I think KTM exhibits a much greater level of character and quality compared to other manufacturers, not to mention the outstanding “bang for your buck” in a very competitive industry.)
Patricio and the KTM staff welcomed me with curiosity about my adventure of course, and Elias was ready to help me get my bike back into shape. This brings us to a little lesson for all motorcycle riders: Check to make sure all nuts and bolts are still tight much more often than you think you should! I had put a wrench on all the major spots like wheel nuts and axles, handle-bars and brake calipers every week or two on the trip. But I sure was close to having some issues with other less-accessible spots like engine mounts, oil tank bolts, and screws that hold sensors into place. There were actually a couple of bolts completely missing! Nothing dangerous of course, but a few loose or missing items could have led to bigger problems in the future. Every bolt holding that clutch assembly together was still secure, but dangerously close to wiggling free and creating a disastrous situation for my bike.

Worth mentioning here is that these loose bolts set me up for the perfect opportunity to make my first joke in Spanish. (Come on, it’s a memorable moment since I’m typically such a comedian in my native language : ) It had been a struggle to communicate around the shop because nobody spoke English, and my Spanish still did not cover the art of motorcycle maintenance at that point. When Elias was showing me yet another bolt that was extremely loose and on the brink of falling out completely, he put the ratchet on it and gave it a turn to show how loose it was while I gave a look of amazement and muttered “No problema para mi abuela.” Having had virtually no language in common around the shop all day made that simple little line much funnier than it would have been in any other situation. (If you’re not sure what it means, go ahead and look it up.) We had plenty of other laughs like when Elias started my bike having forgotten to put the exhaust back on first and when Salomon opened the radiator on another bike and the coolant exploded covering half the shop. I just love being around the shop with all these motorcycles, hearing the guys make jokes about each other’s sisters, learning new tricks to maintain the bike, etc.

(Above: Salomon, (a.k.a. "Africa") Elias, and Victor

By the way, isn’t that one of the greatest things about Latin America so far? Look at all these pictures since Oaxaca, Mexico where I am there in the shop, laughing it up with the mechanics and working on my own bike along with them when I want to. Think you could ever do that in the U.S.? Nope, there you’d be stuck in the “Valued Customer Lounge” drinking day-old coffee and hoping for a glimpse of what was happening to your bike. Surely all the concerns about you walking into the shop, getting hurt, and suing the dealership have something to do with that. But how come other countries are able to do without such restrictions and problems? No signs telling them what to do every step of their day.

Speaking of KTM’s, my “celebrity status” has been kicked up a few notches since arriving in the Valparaiso/Santiago area. In the picture above, I'm hanging onto the bike of Chaleco Lopez while Elias and the guys are maintaining it after the annual Paris-Dakar rally that is now held here in Argentina and Chile. That race-ready motorcycle is very similar to the same KTM design I’ve been riding since Atlanta, and since the Dakar Rally just passed through Valparaiso where Michelle and Carlos live two weeks before I arrived, people on the streets just about fall all over themselves when they see my bike riding around the town. There were times I’ve been stopped in traffic, looked to the right, and seen everyone on the bus next to me has turned their heads and is looking straight at my bike. And I mean EVERYONE. It’s hysterical. I’m still not sure if they think I’m a rider that never finished the race, or if I’m just part of one of the teams on vacation, but people approach me all the time on the sidewalks asking to get their picture taken with my bike. I think it’s even more entertaining for me than it is for them!

One very important meeting happened while I was in downtown Santiago traffic on my bike, headed back to the KTM dealership for some parts. I was stopped in traffic by Jaime and Lucho, a couple of guys driving in a car next to me. They saw all the stickers on my bike and were curious about where I was from, going to, etc. We pulled to the side of the road and started bouncing around some ideas about going for a few rides in Chile, as Jaime had just bought a BMW 1200GS, and Lucho already had one. We’ll see plenty more about these gents in my next post, but let’s just say I’m finding Chilean people to be very friendly, extremely hospitable, and overwhelmingly generous. People like Jaime, Lucho, Michelle, Carlos, and their friends and families have helped me make a tough decision simple. I'll be settling here in Chile for a while, and finishing the ride to Ushuaia sometime in the future.

And that is my plan for now: I’m looking to settle into a rented room probably in Vina del Mar, Valparaiso, or the Santiago area soon and start working. I think I’m a pretty well-rounded person with a good skillset, but until my Spanish is better, I might only be able to get work teaching English. (Which is okay. Many language institutes explain that you don't need to speak the native language in order to teach English. Plus, I love helping people that want to learn something and it's a job I really think I will like.) So like I was saying: Work now, improve my Spanish, get a feeling for life and what it’s like here in Chile and hopefully continue enjoying it as much as I have so far. I can finish the ride through Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Torres del Paines all the way to Ushuaia at a later date.

For now, I’ll just keep that as a sketch for what is to come. But do stay tuned, cause there will surely be blog postings along the way! (You don’t think I’m honestly going to just park that beautiful bike, do you? We should have some warm winter days around here…)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Adv #7 Continued: 10 Days on the Pacific from Panama to Chile

(Perspective: I’m posting this from a hotel on the west side of Santiago, Chile right now. We made it! Got off the boat on February 1st and I’ve just been snooping around, meeting people and freshening up my bike since we arrived. Well, that and don’t forget the 2 days worth of paperwork and customs delays. Hope you enjoy the posting, cause I sure enjoyed the experience!)

When I walked away from my career in hopes of adding some more excitement and adventures to my life, the experience described in this posting is exactly the kind of unique situation I had in mind. Of course I’d never thought specifically about a steamship ride before, but I absolutely love fact that I got to do something so unique that had never even entered my mind previously.

On January 22nd, we boarded the Cap Blanche at the Panama Canal and rode all the way to Valparaiso, Chile. I took about 500 pictures during my 10 days on the ship, so I hope I did a good job organizing this incredible experience into text with the highlight photos. What a way to start the trip though! At the north end of the Panama Canal in the Caribbean Sea, then going through all the locks in the canal to end up in the Pacific. It’s actually about an 18-hour process from one end of the canal to the other, costing the owners of our vessel $128k in fees just to go through. (Anyone want to dig a canal with me somewhere?)

Why this picture above? It’s just one of those moments right after we pulled away from the pier and the thought is pounding through my head that “THIS IS ONE OF THE COOLEST THINGS I HAVE EVER DONE IN MY LIFE!!!” We were waiting just outside the Panama Canal with the 92 other ships I counted, ready to start the voyage to South America. Not sure if this comes across clearly in text, but I was absolutely beaming with excitement at this point.

This is one of the busiest shipping points in the entire world, so it's not like we could just pull away from the pier and start gliding down the river. We were instructed to set anchor just outside the harbor in the Caribbean for about 20 hours before actually gaining clearance to start going through the canal.

So it wasn't until our 2nd day on the ship that the pictures below help recreate the amazing experience of actually going through the Panama Canal. A special "pilot" is brought on board the ship to help the crew navigate through the canal in this very slow and cautious 18-hour process. It’s very quiet, everyone is very careful, and as you get to each lock, it's an amazing process of lowering our ship downward about 30 feet at a time by letting the water out of the lock. The Cap Blanche just barely fits through with about 2 or 3 feet to spare on each side as it is guided slowly by cables and tourists gather in nearby restaurants to watch the action.

(Above: Headed into the canal after being anchored over night in the Caribbean. Below: In the order called upon, pushing through the group to start moving through the canal.)

(Pic above: A look at one of 6 trains that used cables to keep the ship at the proper distance from the walls, and the inside of one of the gates as we are being lowered.)

Aside from getting the deal of a lifetime transporting myself and my bike to Chile, (thank you again Peter and your contacts!) it was also a ton of fun to hang around the ship, get to know the crew, and see how things work. For starters, Peter and I each had our own private sleeping quarters, which I guess is actually pretty standard for these type of ships. That came as a nice surprise to me though, as I had envisioned some kind of “bunk” group sleeping quarters before we got the good news.

Pictures below show what “Crew Room 308” was like though. Clean and simple. Just perfect for being rocked to sleep every night by the soft Pacific swells. (Well, I actually took about 3 naps per day, too : )

The 220 meter long Cap Blanche had an 18-man crew on board with a mix of Ukrainians, Russians, and Filipinos running the ship. Also joining us were 4 other passengers who had bought this trip just for the experience. (I guess it’s not completely unheard of for regular passengers to join for the ride on these ships. Still rare though.) We had Michel, Isabelle, and Daniel from France, and Carlos from Germany all keeping us company while the crew worked the ship. Each of those three men explained that they’d always had a dream of setting out to sea on such a vessel, to have the experience and understand what it was like. For Carlos specifically, it was a dream he’d had since he used to work on these ships some 40+ years ago. Now retired, he says it’s his turn to be the passenger and let everyone else do the work.

We were fed outstanding meals in the Officer’s Mess 3 times a day where Captain Sobolev was the first to introduce himself to me just 20 minutes after we boarded the ship. Peter recalls having a pretty unhappy experience 10 years ago when he did a trip like this, and most of that displeasure came from an unhappy crew being led by a captain that was really tough to be around. This was not the case for us on the Cap Blanche though. Captain Sobolev is the absolute professional when it comes to doing the job, but at the same time, he’s a great guy that makes us passengers and his crew feel like we’re part of a fun adventure together. Aside from the obvious, we were basically given the full run of the boat to go where we pleased and Captain and his crew were always helpful and sociable.
Aside from the 3 excellent meals a day we were served, we had 24-hour access to a refrigerator full of goodies was always stocked for those in-between needs. Plus we could buy beer, chocolate, wine, and other snacks from the Slopchest, paying a nominal dollar amount for them at the end of the trip.

(That anchor splashing in the water looks small above, but it´s actually 10 feet in length!)

So what’s a typical day like aboard the ship? I never missed breakfast at 7:30, and it was often followed by an 8:00 nap. (Admittedly, I was moderately sea-sick for much of the trip, so nausea pills made sleeping quite common.) But aside from napping, we pretty much had the full run of the boat to go where we pleased. The top-level control room on the bridge was a good place to hang out, see what was going on with weather, our position, whale and dolphin watching, etc. It’s always neat to be up there and I probably spent a couple of hours every day hanging out. Movies like “The Hunt for Red October” and a few others were often in my mind as I listened to Captain call out directions to his crew with that Ukrainian accent. “Twenty degrees port rudder. Make your heading 160." "Aye, Captain, heading 160.”
Some minimal exercise was possible on a boat, as I could always embark on the 220-meter walk to the front of the ship to enjoy the silence away from the engine. (To help visualize 220 meters, that's about as far as my buddy Rob Cunningham hits his best driver...with the wind. Love ya, Rob : ) There are too many beams and ladders in the way to really do any jogging, so every once in a while I’d run the 7 flights of stairs to the bridge for some good cardio. After that, we might play ping-pong, lift weights, hit the punching bag, wash our bikes…..pretty much whatever I would do at home, right? This ship wasn’t as luxurious as most passenger cruise ships, but hey…if you saw some of the hotels and campgrounds I’ve stayed at in the last 8 months…the Cap Blanche was pretty nice.

A few days into the trip, the 2nd engineer, Dmitry gave us a tour of the entire engineering department starting with a view of the 29,000 horsepower engine itself. (Yes…I said 29,000! For those unfamiliar with engines, most mid-size cars we drive in the U.S. have about 150 horsepower, often less.) It’s a 7-cylinder, 2-stroke diesel engine that uses about 96 tons of fuel a day when running at its maximum speed of 108 revolutions per minute. Not to get into too much shop-talk, but the cylinders themselves are 27 inches in diameter with a stroke of about 7 feet in length! (Look closely to see how small Peter is to the right of that engine. To put it into perspective, I’d say it’s about the size of the brown UPS truck outside your home right now. The engine in a mid-size car is about the size of a small suitcase.)

(Above: A spare cylinder that can be swapped out in the engine.)

The drive-shaft you see in the picture below was about 35 yards long, about 1 yard in diameter, and it turns a 5-blade propeller that is 7 yards in diameter! At top speed with no major wind or current, the Cap Blanche maxes out around 22 knots, and it takes about 15 minutes to get up to that speed. From full speed to a complete stop, give us about 10 minutes as well. With 62,000 tons fully loaded…..just keep your eyes open for the bumper sticker that says “WE BRAKE FOR NOBODY.”Below is the power unit that controls the rudder of the ship. And if you went 7 stories straight up above the power unit, that’s the tiny little steering wheel that controls the rudder. (They do have auto-pilot too though.) Our tour of engineering was amazing though. A typical 4-bedroom house could fit inside the engine compartment, and it’s kept as clean as a hospital room.

The following day was packed with action. Late that afternoon, a call came out over the intercom that we were having a fire drill. No problem, we all just had to grab our lifejackets from our rooms, and head out onto one of the deck areas while Yvgene talked through some basic procedures. No big deal, and there I am in the picture below 5 minutes after the fire drill enjoying some pre-dinner wine with Daniel and Carlos up on the top deck.

Just as the wine was poured and stories about Carlos’s 36-day voyage from the Virgin Islands to England in an 11-meter boat (yes, seriously) were starting to be told, they called for another fire alarm. Okay….back downstairs we went, but this time we were being shown how to use the 007 James Bond-like escape lifeboat that’s mounted on the back of the ship! Pics below show how everyone on the ship had to climb down into the steeply-mounted lifeboat, strap in our safety belts, and hope that nobody accidentally released us into the water.

After that lifeboat drill was over and we all learned how to start the engine on it, they asked for a volunteer to show everyone how the immersion suits work. (Everyone on board was given a suit, and if you’ve never seen one before, it’s used to keep you warm and dry instead of just using a regular lifejacket. These particular suits were supposed to keep your body temperature stable in 34-degree water for up to about two hours.) ANYWAY, after Dennis walked us through the proper way to get into the suit, they picked “yours truly” to see if I could get into the suit in less than two minutes. I was pretty quick, I think it was about a minute to get it on, and then of course we need to test how it works in the water! Buoyant as a cork, the immersion suit worked like a charm and gave me some ideas for Halloween this year. (Oh, and now you can see we had a small swimming pool there on one of the decks.)

Some other activities were proposed by all the Ukrainian and Russian officers. They had all been craving a taste of home so we gathered together one afternoon to hand-roll 500 of pieces of Pelmeny, which is basically a Russian-version of ravioli. With beef in the middle, it was an outstanding dinner boiled for about 7 minutes, slathered in butter, and served with a salsa-like tomato and onion sauce. Rafael the cook surely enjoyed having the night off for a change. What a great group of guys they were, fortunately all speaking English quite well.

About 4-days into the trip, we arrived in Callao, Peru which is just outside of Lima. This gave us the chance to check out Lima for the day, enjoy a lunch off the boat, and head back for our departure after all the new cargo had been loaded onto the Cap Blanche. Captain Sobolev has been there many times and he recommended handful of highlights to see around the city with the help of a driver we hired for the day. Not bad, as far as big cities go. The changing of the guards at the presidential palace and some of the nicer areas like Miraflores were definitely nice to see. I figure I’ll ride my motorcycle through Peru eventually, so it was okay to see Lima so briefly this time.

(Pics: Walking back to our ship, it's pretty neat to see what this thing looks like from the outside for a change. Pretty amazing, the things man can build.)
Back on the ship for about 4 more days, we continued to find new ways to entertain ourselves. A bit more reading and movie-watching from the ship’s DVD collection helped us get through the remainder of the trip, and I even had a late-night lesson on how to properly consume a pisco-sour from what I think was passion fruit. We wiggled our way along the coast of Peru, eventually making it to the port of Valparaiso, Chile on the afternoon of January 31st where we had to wait for the Queen Mary 2 to get out of the way so we could take her spot on the pier. It was fun to see that enormous ship and all the passengers out on the deck passing us by.

On our last night out at sea, Captain Sobolev showed me some amazing photographs he was given by a friend that collects WWII photographs. The collector had trained under the captain, and shared with him these rarely seen photos that families all over Germany had sent in to build his collection of naval photos. It was amazing to see all those young faces of soldiers that lost their lives and then learn that the average U-boat saw only 2.2 missions. Some U-boats of course, only saw their first. (That's Captain Sobolev below.)
In his office, Captain also told me the story behind the name of the ship we were on as “Cap Blanche” is only a temporary name. This boat is one of 15 ships in a fleet owned by a vessel-leasing company called Harmstorf, Inc. It turns out that the owner of Harmstorf has quite a passion for Pablo Picasso’s work, so each ship in his fleet is named after different girls in Picasso’s various masterpieces. This particular ship is only temporarily being called “Cap Blanche” while Hamburg-Sud leases it from Harmstorf for a 5-year term, and at the end of this lease, its original name will be re-painted onto the usual spots along its hull. In an amazing coincidence, the original name of the ship is one that’s quite special to me.

What would you guess the ship's real name is? (Switch to Forrest Gump’s voice.) “There was only one name I could think of. The most beautiful name in the whole wide world.”

I kid you not. Thousands of boats on the ocean and this one has the same unique spelling as my rare and unique mother, Jeanne. And to think...I almost left the ship after 10 days without discovering this!