From Costa Rica and beyond

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Last Few Weeks in S. America

Oddly, I used to find more time to write when I was on the move than I do now stationary in Buenos Aires. I have been wanting to write, but my limited computer access and circumstances have kept me away from the keyboard. Two things have kept writing at bay in the last few days. Preparing to fly my bike to Miami definitely commanded my attention. If something had gone wrong with that, I would land in Miami next Wednesday and would be stuck. Of course, there might be worse places to be stranded. Fortunately, all went very well this last Tuesday. I rode my spic and span bike out of BA to the international airport, met the contact person, rode to the cargo terminal and met Martin who crated and wrapped my bike after I had removed the front wheel, loosened the handle bar, and squeezed all the gear I could into my panniers and any free space on the pallet. For any riders who are reading this and wondering who they can trust to ship a bike out of Buenos Aires, All Cargo has been totally reliable and professional for my friends and me. There are woeful stories out there of scam artists and there are companies that offer amazing services but cost much more. And speaking of woeful stories...the other matter that has cost me a lot of time recently and caused me much anxiety is the state in which my former tenants left my home after abandoning my house without any notification on the first of June. Fortunately, I have amazing friends in Vermont. Karen Alexander and Roo Mold checked my house, made sure new locks were installed, and made sure no permanent damage was done to the interior of the home. Denise and Paul Scavitto and Jennifer Goodhue worked with one of my tenants all day Tuesday and removed the 900+ pounds of garbage that my tenants had left unattended (for over two weeks!) outside the house. Hopefully the bears will now forget my home and stop prowling around the neighborhood (my poor neighbors). This drama is still not resolved, as the tenants still have lots of  stuff in my house and of course a huge clean up job awaits me when I get back. I expected that to a certain degree, but this is more than I had imagined.

Despite all that, I have plenty to share about the last few weeks here in Argentina. I moved out of my room in Chacarita on the 3rd of June. Being sort of homeless (I spent two nights at Stafford and Fernando´s), I figured this was the perfect opportunity to ride north to the Misiones province. Misiones is named for the Jesuit Missions established there in the 17th century. The ruins of these remarkable settlements remain, but by far the biggest tourist draw in Misiones are the Iguazu waterfalls. They are considered one of the world´s seven natural wonders and a day´s visit leaves no doubt that they are worthy. The falls are not just a couple grand cascades, but well over one hundred of them, big and small, falling an average of 200 feet. The surroundings are green and lush. Water seems to be everywhere and it is all heading in the same direction. The volume of water is not as much as the Victoria Falls in Africa, but my friend and fellow rider Tim, who met me at Iguazu, confirmed first hand that the falls of Iguazu are much more of a crowd-pleaser - partly because of how observable the falls are. Indeed, the infrastructure of the park on the Argentine side of the border is impressive. Well constructed walkways winding over the river and above cliffs give visitors amazing access to views, mist, and the gentle thunder accompanying so much force. Tim and I had a great day exploring the park and taking a plethora of photos. Every new angle seemed ready to give me my most Ansel Adams-esque photo.

The next day, I started heading back south. I didn´t ride far though, as I got a late start after an oil change and because I wanted to visit the ruins of the San Ignacio Mission. Anyone who has seen the movie, the Mission (with Deniro, Neeson, and Irons), understands the draw of these historical sites (and if you haven´t seen the movie, you should. Great acting, great soundtrack, great scenery, essentially true story.). More than perhaps any other religious enterprise in the so-called "New World", these extensions of the Catholic Church found considerable success and sympathy among the local aboriginal peoples - in this case, the Guarani. This is partly because the Guarani belief system fit quite well with what the Jesuits presented them and because the Jesuits were working and even fighting to protect the Guarani from slave traders. The very communal Guarani people also appreciated that the Missions´s profits (which were considerable) were put right back into their communities.

I spent that night in the border town (to Paraguay) Posadas. I knew I had a long ride ahead of me. The ride from BA had taken two long days of riding through a lot of flat, visually numbing farmland in the province called Entre-Rios. To break up the return trip and to see another major Argentine city, I decided to ride back to BA by way of Rosario. The ride to Rosario took over ten hours and crossed more than 1000km in one day. This was probably my longest single day ride of the entire trip. I was soon struck (literally) with just how alive the Entre-Rios region is. For the first time since last August, I hit a bird. A brown pigeon enjoying the hot tarmac, waited too long to fly away and when it did, it veered right in front of me and smacked the top of my helmet. I looked worriedly in my rear-view mirror expecting to see blood, guts, and feathers. Instead, all I saw was a bit of a sag in my visor. I stopped and found that the force of the impact had broken a plastic bolt that attaches one side of the visor to the helmet. That meant I was now riding with a broken bolt on my helmet, a broken bolt on my crash guard, and the consequences of a broken bolt on the right-side foot peg. (Good bolts are really important) At any rate, as I rode on, it became clear why I had finally hit a bird - there were thousands of them all along the road. There were gorgeous birds of yellow, others all white except for a bright red head, there were pigeons of all sorts and duck like amblers that were surprisingly nimble on the ground, but never flew. There were also birds of prey and foxes looking for some easy feed.

Rosario was like a small BA (but still has more than one million residents). The waterfront, overlooking the Parana River was lovely. Joggers and walkers and maté sippers love this long, public space. Gazing across the great Parana back into Entre-Rios, a giant wetland devoid of any sign of human activity, it felt like being at civilization´s last outpost at the end of the known world. Rosario was significant for my voyage in a unique way though. The inspiration for my trip was the movie, Motorcycle Diaries, about a great motorcycle trip made by the young Che Guevara. Che was born in Rosario in 1928 and the elegant bourgeois building where he first lived is still standing. There is nothing on the building itself to indicate it´s most famous resident, but the Che Guevara Hostel right across the street takes care of that. So in a sense, Rosario was a very fitting place to visit here at the tail end of my journey. It was also the site of the last (I hope) roadblock of my trip. My nighttime ride into Rosario took me through a villa (slum) and led right to some protesters and newly ignited tires. While sizing up the situation, a young man told me motorcyclists could pass through. So, I rode up to the line of tires, hopped up on the sidewalk and went around the blockade. A few kids and a woman came over to object, but I was already through and short of using force there was nothing they could do. I was delighted with how vacant the streets were on the other side!

After two nights in Rosario, I rode the remaining four hour trip back to Buenos Aires and moved into the Kilca Hostal in the downtown area. This hostel is not elegant. Indeed, it is rather run-down, but it is friendly, inexpensive, and has room to park a number of bikes - very rare in BA. The nice thing about living in hostels is meeting people and being tourists together as opposed to alone. So, I have revisited some places here and checked out some new places. A couple nights ago, I went to the Cathedral with my friend, Tim, and a couple others. This former church is now a very cool Tango venue. The walls are covered with graffiti-like modern art. That and the darkness of this space create an almost gothic ambiance - which is magic when combined with tango music, organic Argentine wines, and inexpensive tango lessons (and lots of cute women!). I met one of them on the dance floor - Carla Soto of Lima, Peru, who taught me the first few steps of Tango (or did I teach her?? Hmm....). I also finally visited Tigre, a small city outside BA famous for its quaint waterways through parts of the Parana delta. Carla and Vaneska and I enjoyed a boat tour past groves of reeds and cute cottages.

Another noteworthy evening was when I met with Ade Barkah a few days ago. Ade, a computer programmer from Toronto, and I first met in Baja and rode together for about three days. He just arrived in BA after pushing just as far south as he possibly could before being pushed back by the Patagonian winter. Ade and I went to my favorite pizza joint, Angelín, and then walked along the lively Avenida Armenia. We each had a lot of stories to share. I look forward to visiting him sometime in Toronto.

The goodbyes have begun of course. Tim (who I first met in Guatemala) sold his KLR (a big goodbye) and caught a freighter headed to Senegal. My last night of volunteering at a home for girls was Wednesday. As usual, I met my friend Majo (Marie José), and went with her to the home. Being a holiday (Dia de la Bandera - flag day), not many of the girls were there, so we played board games with those remaining and just hung out. Afterwards, Majo and I swapped stories and shared a pizza.

More goodbyes are coming in the next couple days before my flight to Miami. I will miss quite a few people and I know days are coming where I will wish to be back in BA, but I am ready to move on and to explore the US some as I ride north to Michigan.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Really Fine Night

The following comes from an evening about three weeks ago. I took notes as it was happening. I realize that some of the likenesses drawn in this journal-style entry will mean nothing to those who don´t know the persons referenced. But it is my blog after all :)

It has been a tough day. I left my debit card in an ATM about a week ago and just realized it yesterday. Today was spent scrambling in order to get money flowing to me as soon as possible. Thank goodness Stafford was able to spot me some cash to tie me over.

So I was feeling a bit brain-dead and hungry too as I approached the corner cafe on the way back to my apartment. Since it is cold now, the windows were closed and I heard next to nothing, but there were lots of people inside and a number of smokers just outside the entrance. The big crowd and the warm light reflecting off wood trim and antique cameras beckoned. It was tempting to pass it all by and return to one thing that was a sure thing on this marathon day (that being my apartment and the salad nicoise whose fixings I was carrying with me). But why not escape for a while into a charming, bustling porteño cafe?

I stepped in and found a white haired jazz band playing It Had To Be You. One last table remained free. I took my place and ordered a beer which came with a tiny bowl of peanuts. Beer and protein - a good combo! Particularly the beer in my empty tummy had an almost immediate effect and added to the fun and the free flow of writing ideas as I scribbled in my notebook. It became abundantly clear to me why Christopher Hitchens prefered to write while drinking whiskey.

Whether it was the beer, a bit of nostalgia or just coincidence, the white-haired virtuosos of the Musicos Cabildo Norte Jazz Club almost all reminded me of someone.

The trombonist with his generous round belly and simple button-up shirt reminded me of my Grandpa Ehrean. If he had stopped and stuck his false teeth out at any of the kids present, the illusion would have been complete.

The keyboardist was a diminutive (and aged) version of my friend Jim Webber who I once helped schlep a vintage electric keyboard into the back of his Subaru.

The guitarist looked like a Gunter Grass without the burdens of a self-anointed moralizer.

The saxophonist reminded me of Saint Johnsbury Academy´s now retired automotive teacher, Tom Moore, as one might see him all dressed up at the Academy´s Christmas Party.

The drummer was a shorter version of former US Director of Intelligence, John Negroponte. The drummer did not miss a beat, so unlike his doppelganger who spoke unintelligently at graduation a few years back about Saint Johnsbury´s namesake (His assumption was wrong - the city is not named for Saint John.).

As they advanced from one jazz standard to another, the performers rotated, giving a slightly more literal meaning to musical chairs. There were a lot more musicians present than I thought...maybe even more performers than audience members.

The shortest and perhaps oldest of the performers, occasionally picking his guitar, occasionally joining other vocalists, reminded me paradoxically of Herman Munster with his box-like head and very prominent chin. His face, however, was as white and wrinkled as Herman´s was green and taut.

Another guitarist, perhaps the most elegant of the men bore a resemblance to my great grandfather from Sweden...perhaps crossed with post-war Germany´s chancellor, Adenauer.

There was a clarinetist too. A Benny Goodman with an incredible comb-over.

Of all these men, there was only one dark-haired interloper. I think I would have bleached my hair if I were him.

The elder musikmeisters, the tunes from the golden age of jazz, the b & w photos in this cafe cum photography museum all carried me away from the day´s worries. I was struck by how many amazing musicians there are in Buenos Aires and by how such quintessentially American music has become a part of the world´s musical heritage. This American felt really lucky and even a bit proud to be enjoying one of his country´s great and truly appreciated cultural gifts performed masterfully by men who may never have set foot on US soil. It was a really fine night.