Monday, April 20, 2009

Adv #7 Continued: Friends in Chile, Football, and a ride to Argentina. Life is pretty good.

(Nope, I'm not back in the U.S. yet.....but how cool is this? Avenida Wisconsin in the neighborhood of Vitacura, close to where I'm staying here in Santiago. Other streets in this neighborhood are Indiana, Puerto Rico, Virginia....all helping me feel right at home.)

Almost 3 months have gone by since I arrived in Chile, and life has been one fun occasion after another ever since. My job hunt has been “confusing” to say the least. Uncertainty about the availability of tourism jobs in certain areas, my weak Spanish abilities, and a mix of thoughts and reasoning still have me searching. I’m sure I’ll settle into the right opportunity when it comes up, but until that happens, life seems to be full of opportunities to meet new people and go to new places.

About 3 years ago, I had the chance to meet Veronica Vall while she was dating a good friend, Dan Ritter in Miami. Vero is from Santiago and still keeps in touch with Dan, so when she heard I was living here she quickly reached out so we could meet up. She’s a busy girl, running her fashion design business and being a single mom, but we’ve had time for lunches and dinners and such, and a few occasions to ride my motorcycle around town and check things out.

Stopping by the KTM shop one day to pick up a couple of things, Vero and I stumbled across a press conference where Roland Spaarwater (owner of KTM Chile) was doing a publicity presentation of the new KTM bikes to Carlo de Gavardo. If you’re not a racing fan, you might not recognize his name, but Carlo is a very highly world-ranked rider/driver/pilot in a variety of off-road racing categories, and it was just a neat piece of timing to stumble across this occasion with the press there and everything. Quite a few of the local KTM Adventure Club riders were there as well, and we’ll be seeing more of them later in this post.

Vero and I have also met up with her friends Russell and Marcia on a couple of occasions, one of those being a trip to the Cajon de Maipo area for an afternoon barbeque and the chance to hang out around the pool. These public pool resorts to be pretty popular with Chileans who live in the cities, giving folks a chance to break away from the city with a short drive out into the countryside. (Back a couple of posts, you can see we also did this with Carlos and Michelle’s family in Valparaiso.) The only tough part about these getaways is that everyone’s stuck in their own traffic on Sunday night, trying to get back into the city.

During my very first visit to the KTM shop just a few days after we got off the boat in Chile, Jorge Pichara was one of the KTM riders I met while he stopped by the shop to get something. We’ve kept in touch and had a couple of barbeques and chances to hang out and meet his friends around the city, and one weekend we went out with his cousin Roger to ride their dirt bikes at a motocross track just north of Santiago. Jorge’s KTM had some problems the day we met up for this, so that meant I had to ride my bike separately which gave us some good photo opportunities while we worked our way out of town. (Roger on the left, Jorge on the right.)

Roger actually has a 3rd place ranking right now in the Chilean national racing circuit he’s in, so this day was as much a practice session for him as it was a chance for us just to ride some trails around the track. I took the chance to ride Jorge’s bike a bit on the trails around the track, and up into the hills. It sure did bring back some old memories of trail-riding I’ve done with bikes from the past, only on this ride, we were in the beautiful rolling hills of Chilean wine country. Some other friends I’d met previously showed up and brought everything we needed for a barbeque…..and seriously… great can my life get? Barbeques, motorcycles, music, friends…and the chance to tease one of the guys at his first attempt riding a motorcycle? The fall wasn’t serious, he just got off balance a bit as he was starting off.

(Again in the voice of Forrest Gump) “And would you believe it? I got to go to a football match in South America.”
Seriously though, I’m feeling like Forrest Gump sometimes with all the things I’m getting to do since I started traveling. I guess it’s a result of just letting myself blow with the wind a little bit here.

There are two major sporting events I've wanted to see for a long time: 1) a Formula 1 race, and 2) a major football match in Europe or Latin America. So my buddy Mark Griffin from England had been staying with us at the hostal for a few weeks, and he came across the chance to buy some tickets for the World Cup qualifying match between Chile and Uruguay! Granted, they’re not exactly to “powerhouse” teams in the world of football, but that doesn’t stop the fans from turning up the electricity and making one incredible atmosphere.
That atmosphere started well before the game when Sebastian from Austria joined us for a trip to the local pub. Timing was perfect, as England’s World Cup qualifying match was on TV, and we were able to get updates in the background about Bolivia beating Argentina 6 to 1. (That news alone was driving the Chileans crazy, cause there’s a bit of a rivalry between the neighboring countries.) Hanging out with the locals, they light up like crazy when the camera comes out and we continued to drink beers with them until we headed to Estadio Nacional for the Chile/Uruguay match. This of course reminds me of one of my absolute favorite movie moments. If you haven’t seen “There’s Something About Mary,” check it out and notice the moment where they talk about the soccer stadium in Santiago, Chile. It’s so funny!

A train ride to the south side of Santiago and Estadio Nacional put us in exactly that atmosphere I’d imagined: An incredible fan base, yelling, screaming, and chanting their songs, and everyone wearing the Chilean National team color of red. I had to laugh at a few of these photo opportunities during the match because it looked like I was back at Camp Randall for a Badger game! Never saw Bucky, but I’m not sure he would have been noticed anyway because the fans are so completely wild about the game.

The final score was 0-0, and it sure would have been great to see a goal or two. Either way…this occasion helped me confirm that when there’s only one single sport that even matters in your country…the fan following is absolutely incredible. Sure, we have great fan support in the U.S., but with so many important sports going on every day of the week, I think the enthusiasm has been diluted a bit compared to football in Latin America. As one of the pictures below is showing, Mark had been studying all the important words that you’d need to scream in Spanish at such an event, words that might help things get out of control. And just in case Mark’s heckling got out of control, you can also see the Forces Speciales fully padded in their riot gear, and sneaking the chance to watch the game while everything was okay.

So after 10 months of writing this blog, I just noticed I can add video, too. (Nice, Eric. It's the button right next to the "add photo" button.) Anyway, check out the 24 second video below from the game showing just how crazy the fans are, and notice: The teams aren't even playing at this moment!)

Santiago is a neat city, but I sure do love the opportunity to get out of it every once in a while. I’d kept in touch with Pato at the KTM shop and was invited to participate in the 21st KTM Adventure Rider’s Club ride which was a weekend trip over the Andes to Argentina! (Forrest: "And would you believe it? I got to go to Argentina.”)

On the morning of April 3rd, nine of us riders met in Santiago, and proceeded to cut through traffic breaking virtually every traffic law on our way to meet the other 9 riders about 150 miles south in Romeral. Stopped by the police for speeding as a group? No problem. One of the riders just showed his identification as volunteer/donor to the local policeman’s society, and we were on our way without a problem. Roland (mentioned previously) was waiting there to make the morning announcements and introduce me as the lone gringo to join the ride before we headed out to Argentina.

I’d done a little bit of off-road riding with my KTM, but Peter and I always did slow, “technical” riding with all my luggage boxes and backpack on the bike. Headed up into the Andes, the pavement quickly disappeared and our spare bottles of gasoline became necessary as we headed out into some very remote territory on a bike that is totally different without the luggage. For a distance of about 300 miles, we rode every kind of rock, sand, gravel, and dirt terrain possible, only stopping at the customs and border control checkpoints to go through all our paperwork. Jorge, who could not join on this trip, had joked about me going on a trip with a bunch of older, slow riders that would be boring. This could not have been further from the truth, as I ended up being one of the slowest riders on the first day! (Mostly cause I'm still getting used to my bike without all the luggage and conditions I’d never ridden in before, PLUS, I guess I’m just a cautious rider, more interested in getting there then how fast I do it.)
Such a great ride though! Headed up to around 12,000 feet in elevation at Paso Vergara, spotting snow-capped glaciers and mountains all along the way, it’s still such a neat feeling to be in such remote territory away from all the cars, buildings, and electricity. The great photo opportunity below arose when we talk the border guards into snapping a few shots for us. Following that, I still get that feeling every time I cross into a new country. The "rush" always rings through my helmet a few minutes after crossing borders that “I’m in Argentina!” “I’m in Mexico!” “I’m in El Salvador!” “I’m in Panama!” I don’t think that feeling will ever get old. If things work out my way, I’ll have that feeling many, many more times…….”I’m in Brazil!” “I’m in Zimbabwe!” “I’m in Romania!” “I’m in Thailand!!!” Like I said, if things go my way…….

An interesting side-note: On this first day of riding, we were riding literally just a few miles away from the famous airplane crash site, where in October of 1972, the Uruguayan Rugby team depicted in the movie “Alive” and other books and films endured such an incredible tragedy. If you have not read or watched this amazing story, definitely check it out. Having seen the terrain now, and understanding better just how isolated they were from any help, it just made the story that much more amazing to me.

We arrived in the small town of Malargue, Argentina much later than we’d hoped, and as the group rejoined there at the hotel, we were told yet ANOTHER of the most amazing stories I’ve ever heard.

Just about 10 miles from the hotel, Roland hit and killed a cow with his motorcycle, but he rode through it just fine and didn't even get hurt! We were finishing the ride with only the moonlight, and he says this black cow ran out in front of him coming out of a turn while he was going about 80 miles per hour. Roland's instincts must be good in these situations, because instead of hitting the brakes, he twisted the throttle and just blasted through the back half of the cow, killing it there on the spot and ripping the left half of his bike apart. The collision knocked him out of control briefly, but with some quick hand-work he was able to straighten himself up without even falling.

So the next morning, we all gathered around for the repairing of his bike, getting the radiator welded back together and fixing a couple of fuel leaks. Sure enough, riding out of town mid-day to head further south, there along the side of the road, was the dead cow that many of us rode past in the dark the night before not knowing what had happened. Roland, the picture you should have taken was with your foot planted on the cow’s belly and your fist charging up into the air! Glad you’re okay, but let’s not try that again soon.

The rest of the ride further south was beautiful of course, and we stayed in a small town called Chos Malal the 2nd night. With Paso Pichachen chosen as the spot to cross back into Chile on Sunday, we spent half the day riding to this very remote border crossing, only to learn that, even with off-road bikes, it was completely impassable due to some major rock slides that had just happened. Aww….that was just tough news for us, cause that meant we’d have to spend an extra day riding further south to another border crossing, and our 3-day ride would become a 4-day adventure. Life is rough...

(Below: It's no secret Argentinians eat alot of meat. The traffic jam you see below is just one of many that we come across and have to fight our way through. I guess all that meat has to walk somewhere before it ends up in the restaurant.)
We hustled further down south to Paso Pino Hachado, and this ride was another one I’ll never forget. Okay…I’ve ridden in some windy situations before. Wind almost forced me to crash in Panama once, parts of Mexico and even Kansas were incredibly windy…but I have never, ever felt such a consistent and powerful blast of wind as we did this day. It’s so funny to look at the rider ahead of you on the highway leaning so hard to one side fighting the wind as it pushes us the opposite direction, and my neck was actually getting sore from pressing my head against the wind coming so fiercely from the right. For one brief part of the ride, we turned and rode directly downwind. When you ride downwind or “with” the wind, the feeling of the wind disappears, right? I was doing 70mph for a little bit, and didn’t feel any wind rushing around me. Felt like I was in outer space for a minute there....that's some fast wind.

The picture below shows more about just how windy it was. Tommy is a big strong guy…..but as we stopped at one point, he couldn’t even hold his bike up against the wind. Look at the other riders in the picture, hunkered down on their KTM’s and struggling to hold them up. I had the benefit of a small hill I was behind, which is the only reason the photo was possible.

Also making this ride a challenge was that we could hardly see because of some kind of “mud” falling from the sky, mixed in with a light rain that was starting up. We kept stopping, trying to clear our goggles and visors, but none of us could figure out how mud would be falling from the sky like that. Well, we arrived inside the customs and border patrol office on the Argentinian side only to learn that the Llaima Volcano was erupting only about 20 miles west of where we were. Sure enough, that was ash that was shooting up into the air, mixing with rain, and falling down on us like a “mud” that made for some really interesting riding. See the picture below, and all the ash/mud that had accumulated on the front of Julius.
Anyway, Paso Pino Hachado is right in the middle of Reserva Nacional Alto Bio Bio at the border of Chile and Argentina, and it’s really amazing how the scenery changes in such a stunning way as soon as you enter the reserve. It’s like suddenly you’re amongst a different trees and foliage than you’ve seen anywhere else, and I was excited all over again about some of the incredible scenery I’d ridden through in my 10 months of traveling. Sometimes I really enjoy the tough and nasty weather cause it sure does add to the experience!
Through the beautiful southern parts of Chile, we made it to Victoria for our last hotel stop in Victoria before all heading home Monday morning so some guys could make it to work for a half-day. I was so glad to be included in this incredible ride, and to think: It’s pretty regular that this group gets together for such events!
The day after I got back to Hostal Providencia was my birthday, and the staff (who have become friends in my 6 weeks living here) were so kind as to have a mid-day surprise party for me, complete with a little inside joke for a gift. Noelia, below unfortunately had to go back home just before my birthday. (Are you reading this , my little Munchkin?) And that’s Max, another buddy that works here at the hostal. Yes, he could easily be a John Stewart look-a-like, and no, he says he won't sell me any of that hair no matter how badly I need it.

So if you’ve honestly read this entire posting, believe me…I’m flattered beyond words. I do get emails and notes all the time from different people, some of whom I haven’t spoken with in years, but somehow heard about this blog. The common theme of encouragement I seem to get is to “Run, Forrest, Run!!” and just to keep going. Believe me, it’s my intention to do so. I’m very happy about my decision to travel like this, too, and if things turn out the way I want them to, this blog has much more to show you….


  1. Julie (french girl)April 30, 2009 at 4:53 PM

    I love you're life ! I wish to have the same... travels, travels and travels again ! And met many people...a real dream !

  2. sorry, i want to say "your life" ^^