From Costa Rica and beyond

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Northern Chile

I rode over the cold and barren Peruvian altiplano (high plains) from Lake Titicaca and down into even more barren desert and arrived in Arequipa. Peru`s second largest city is called the "White City" because the stone used in building much of the old colonial city is white. I spent just one night there, but still had time to take in the sights of the elegant old city with its churches, arched facades, bustling park, and convent. The latter is especially noteworthy as being the only convent with its own mini-city within. A very gregarious (to say the least) local told some French acquaintances and me that nuns from wealthy families spent their entire adult lives in the convent, not leaving or looking outside even once. They had slaves to look after them. According to him the Pope personally put an end to that in the early 1900s. Arequipa, like many of the more touristed cities I have visited, is home to an Alliance Francaise. This one was paired with an excellent creperie, where I treated myself to a dessert after eating a really inexpensive burger from a street vendor.

The ride to Tacna took me through desert of all sorts. Near Arequipa were small mountains that looked like someone had drizzled frosting over a bundt cake. Brown rocks and lighter drifted sand gave these mountains a truly unique look. Later I was cruising down a very straight road at quite an angle, as a constant wind from the west tried to push me over. This wind is generated when the sun heats the sand and causes convection to start. It fades at night. It also stirs up whirlwinds, mostly small. Sometimes dozens can be seen at once.

Tacna is the last major city before the border to Chile. I arrived mid afternoon and looked for accommodations. None were reasonably priced, so I dashed to the border. Peru and Chile have a model border crossing there. It is clean, orderly, and there are no scam-artists of any kind. What a relief. I met an English expat at the border. He led me into town, showed me where to change money and where to get insurance, if I wanted it. What I really wanted was a place to spend the night. I looked for a campground that`s listed in my guidebook, but instead just found people camping for free on the beach. That`s where I spent my first two nights in Chile.

Arica is a nice town with a couple famous buildings - built of steel by Gustave Eiffel. The beach is long and clean and free for all campers. My first full day in Chile was spent running errands so I would be ready to head south. I also had a very nice conference via skype with colleagues back at the Academy. This was effectively my first Academy related activity since a half year. Wow!

The next day I headed south on the road to Iquique. The desert is simply mind-blowing here. It is just rock and mostly sand for a seeming eternity. Some deep valleys don`t have any sign of flowing water - just a smoothly rounded sandy bottom.

I made two stops on the way to Iquique. The first was to see the so-called Giant of the Atacama. This figurine is the largest archaeological geoglyph in the world (I am guessing this is a very specific category). This rather boxy, distorted man on a hill is said to date back to about 900AD. Then I stopped in Humberstone, a ghost town that used to be a boom-town when sales of phosphate were hot - before Germany pioneered synthetic fertilizers during World War One. This little city was done by 1960. Walking through its empty streets and buildings (whose dilapidated corrugated walls and roofs creaked and clapped in the desert wind) reminded me of Calumet, MI which folded when copper prices sank after the Civil War. My visit here was very special though, because I realized something I have been trying to accomplish for a long time. As I walked up the main street, I saw a platform scale. I looked it over and found it was manufactured in Birmingham, England. Bummer. About ten meters farther, another. Finally, a Fairbanks scale!!! I stood on it and it still seemed to work. I canvassed the whole town and found two more, although only one had Fairbanks clearly written on it.

Humberstone also had a nice theater (reminding me of Fuller Hall - I felt like giving a long-winded chapel talk!), a swimming pool with grandstands, an elegant hotel and church, both with typical 1930s architecture. In the town center, I was hailed by a youngish woman. She is a news reporter for Megavision here in Chile. She interviewed me about what I thought of Humberstone and I hope tonight to see myself on national television (I`m so vain!).

My only frustration in Humberstone was with batteries. My camera batteries were dying on me. The cameraman from Megavision gave me two more, but they were duds too (I don`t know if he realized that). Still, I managed to shoot what I wanted. Then it was time to go. I hopped on my bike and...nothing. I hit the starter and heard a little click - no more. Ugh oh. I took the seat off and checked the battery. The connections appeared fine. I read the manual and it said it could be a short somewhere in the system. I checked all the fuses. They were all good. So if there were a short or an exposed wire, it could be ANYwhere

Goal number one in Miami-esque Iquique was to find a workshop. I found that quite quickly. Goal number two: lodging. That was not so easy. Indeed, I was getting discouraged when I met Mike, a local man on a BMW motorcycle. He suggested I stay in his 18th floor empty apartment. I pinched myself and said OK! Mike got me settled and told me we would meet with friends of his who are very good mechanics in the morning.

Mike is a mechanical engineer who works seven days straight at a nearby (300km) copper mine and then has seven days free. In the morning, we looked over my bike and tried to start it, going so far as to pull it with his pickup to try to push (pull) start it. No luck. Mike kept telling me it was something with the battery and I disagreed since the battery clearly had power. Finally, we took off the seat, and Mike tried to tighten the cable connections with a screwdriver. Indeed, the one (the same one I looked over the previous day) was somewhat loose. That solved the starting issue! Already in the bike repair mindset, I decided to get some other work out of the way. I have been carrying new brake pads since San Diego and a new chain/sprocket set since Panama. We tackled the latter. This undertaking made plain just how inadequate my mechanical know-how and instincts are - especially compared to a mechanical engineer! I took a short job and made it longer by not reading directions first and by using a torque wrench when I did not really know how one works. Needless to say, I broke a couple bolts when replacing the rear sprocket. When these special bolts (with threading on both ends but not in the middle) broke, I thought I was going to be very stationary for a long while. Mike told me to relax. We drove his pickup to the House of Bolts and bought replacement "prisoner" bolts (I wonder if they have the same name in English) that are supposedly better than the originals. Mike also got some gasoline so I could clean my bike of all the accumulated grease (from the chain spray) and then we put grease just where it was needed. By the time we were done, the tropical sun had been beating on us for hours. It feels great to have this job behind me though.

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