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…)

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