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.