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Buenos Aires, Argentina
September 23, 2004

Argentina

Leaving Bolivia, Part III
Peasants moving heavy sacks in VillazonMy last impression as I leave Bolivia is looking up from the customs process and noticing that Wilma and her entourage have passed from sight; crossed into Argentina with the throng. My lasting impression of Bolivia, however, is of a never-ending chain of peasants, backs bent badly to the burden, in some cases virtually doubled over, under sacks that appear to be a hundred weight.

On the Argentinean side of the border sits a long line of trucks pointed towards Bolivia but not moving forward; whether by design or decree, Iím uncertain. But the cargo, that yields a white, powdery residue which covers the laborers, and could be anything from grain to concrete, is being unloaded and manually moved north across the line to a similar waiting truck in Bolivia. Officials from neither side check credentials. Of course the necessity of the process escapes me as much as the merchandise, but the sickening spectacle of old women and young children, some barely able to stagger forward under their respective loads, will surely forever be imprinted in my mindís eye. I quickly snap two pictures, although neither adequately captures the scene. Then embarrassed by photographing such human suffering, I put the camera away and point the bike towards Argentina.

The Altiplano of western Bolivia, where I spent ten days, is high, cold, arid and desolate. Surely the few people who populate it, as they tend their sheep, goats and llamas, and eke out sustenance from such a barren land, must live at the very edge of human endurance. I probably couldnít overstate how much I enjoyed my time in Bolivia and the people I met, but itís time to move on.

Northwestern Argentina
The distance the length of Argentina - top to bottomArgentinean immigration is behind me, both literally and figuratively, when I first see the road sign Ė 5,121 km (3,175 miles) to Ushuaia - my ultimate destination for the second half of this trip, and the point that is farthest south in the world, and still connected to the road system. In December, my arrival in Ushuaia will complete my motorcycle journey across the Americas Ė the Arctic Ocean to Tierra del Fuego, and the fulfillment of a dream. I contemplate the sign and snap a picture.

What I first notice about Argentina is the roads. Upon clearing La Quiaca, Argentinaís first city in the north, Iím faced with two lanes of black asphalt, as far as the eye can see, and with barely a ripple in the surface. A white, dashed line marks the separation of the two lanes, solid yellow when passing is prohibited, and continuous white lines mark the outer edges of normal travel. Broad shoulders are provided so I can safely pull off the roadway. There are road signs, both providing mileage to the next towns, and warning of conditions such as curves. After six days of rock, sand and gravel, and of speeds generally under 50kph (30mph) in southern Bolivia, I literally smile to myself as I move to fourth gear; then manipulating clutch and shifter, to fifth and finally to sixth gear as I accelerate to 115kph (70mph.)

It was after 2pm when I completed customs on both sides of the border, and I originally planned to spend the night in La Quiaca, but the road is just too good and I continue south another 205km (128 miles) to Tilcara where I check into Hotel El Antigal. The bike is in a secured garage and my room comes with heat and 24-hour a day hot water direct from a boiler. (Note: in Peru and Bolivia, as in almost all Central American countries, the hot water is courtesy of an electric heating coil that is essentially strapped to the shower head; a most dangerous situation, I might add.) OhÖÖÖ.you gotta love Argentina!

In addition to 21st Century conveniences, what I also notice about Argentina, at least arriving from Bolivia, is that itís dramatically lower. Leaving the Salar de Uyuni behind at 3,650m (12,000í,) I drop 700m (2,300í) by the first night in Tupiza, another 500m (1,600í) by the second night in Tilcara and note in Lonely Planet that by the city of Salta Iím down to 1,200m (3,900í) Ė a decrease of almost 2,500m (8,000í) in 750 km (450 miles.) The decrease in altitude makes it warmer and so more comfortable, makes my breathing a lot easier, and along with the 97-octane Shell V-Power gasoline available in Argentina, makes the bike run better.

Red rocks between Salta and CafayateWhile in Tupiza, Jorge and Roberto, the two Transalp riders from Salta, told me not to miss Argentina Ruta 68, roughly 200 km (120 miles) south from Salta to Cafayate. So rather than continue on Ruta 9, the main highway to Tucuman, I decide to head for Cafayate where Iíll spend two nights and work on my journal. Iím not disappointed. After a few miles of farmland, reminiscent of the American heartland in the fifties, Ruta 68 turns into a curving, snaking, twisting motorcycle road that, even with the good pavement, demands one hundred percent of my concentration, as it follows the valley carved by the Rio Santa Maria.

In third gear, at 40mph, I notice the approaching curve bends sharply left, and instinctively downshift to 2nd to cut my speed without applying brakes. Consciously I move my weight forward and left. Even at that I enter with too much speed, and so apply light brake partway through the corner as the sole of my riding boot drags the pavement. The bike stands up, I shift up to 3rd and then to 4th, and momentarily hit 50mph before starting the process again, but to the right this time. In the meantime, the river continues its slow but continual erosion of the landscape. By the time I arrive at Cafayate, Iíve ridden through the hoodoos of Bryce National Park in Utah, and the red bluffs of Sedona, Arizona.

Itís nine days until I board my plane for Seattle, and so I have plenty of time for sightseeing, but I havenít heard from Javier and Sandra for a couple of weeks, and storing the bike is ever present on my mind. Javier and Sandra Kaper live in the suburbs of Buenos Aires and own Dakar Motos, a motorcycle shop. While I donít know them personally, they come highly recommended by friends, including Ricardo Rocco, and Eric and Gail Haws in Oregon. Eric and Gail, a retired attorney and teacher respectively, and motorcycle adventurers extraordinaire (including two trips across Russia in the early-1990s) have left their bike with the Kapers three times. Javier and Sandra have agreed to store the Beemer until I return in December. There wonít be a problem, Iím positive, but I canít chance arriving in Buenos Aires the day before my flight, to find out that they have been called out of town unexpectedly, and Iím looking for another solution.

The cathedral on the plaza in CafayateSightseeing around Cordoba, Argentinaís second largest city, was in my plans, but after two nights in Cafayate I decide to ride through to Buenos Aires, still over 1,450 km (900 miles) away.

Although the roads are all two lanes, they are better than I expected, and I move ahead quickly. As Iíve mentioned in my prior journals, itís standard in most parts of Latin America that all roads go through the heart of the city. So in Trujillo, Peru, for example, with one-half million people the second or third largest city in Peru, the southbound Panamericana is on city streets as it heads straight for the Plaza de Armas (at the center of the city,) then occupies similar city streets as it continues itís course south to Lima. Of course the traffic is appalling, and time lost to the resulting congestion is even worse.

The Argentineans, however, have solved that problem as we have in North America, with bypasses around city centers, at least on the national highways. So, four-lane surface streets skirt Salta, and a full-blown autopista keeps me far away from Cordoba, a metropolis with an estimated population of 1,300,000. By the time I reach Villa Maria, my expected stop for the evening, Iíve ridden over 400km (170 miles) and itís still early afternoon. I stop for gas to contemplate my options.

Now the bike draws admirers like flowers draw bees. In a continent where the average-sized motorcycle is about 125cc, at 1,150cc, the BMW stands out. While most bikes down here are black, or at least a dark color, the Beemer is yellow. The hard bags have stickers from most of the countries that Iíve visited by motorcycle. Add my over-sized frame draped in a bright yellow Gerbing riding jacket, and the whole package is atypical. The Shell station in Villa Maria is a case in point.

By the time Iíve filled with gas and have finished my sandwich and bottled water, a crowd has gathered. What size is the bike? What is the make? Where are you from, and where are you going? Are you going around the world? How long is your trip? How do you like Argentina? These are the most common questions and I do my best to answer each in turn. By the time I tell Hector Daniel Cordoso, a motorcycle mechanic with ďSuzukiĒ printed across his shirt, that I must leave, an hour has passed. Hector assures me that Iíll find a good hotel in Bell Ville, and I decide thatís where Iíll head; another 70km (40 miles) closer to Buenos Aires.

The Heartland
If this were the United States, we would call it the Heartland. In my entire life Iíve never seen an area resemble the Midwestern USA as much as this part of Argentina, and I stop the bike to make some notes.

Winter wheat not yet ripe in Argentinean farm countryThe flat fields are treeless, save for sparsely scattered stands that mark the house and outbuildings of family farms. Dirty, tan-colored stocks of corn, chopped at the knees, remnants of last yearís crop, cover unplowed ground. It is still early spring in this part of Argentina, and the winter wheat, still green, hasnít ripened in the fields. Ford pickups are common, as are John Deere, Massey Ferguson and New Holland farm implements. Houses, where I can see them, are prosperous. The dirt is black and the countryside is clean. I note that this road could easily be Route 34 through Galesburg, in west central Illinois where I grew up. Temporarily remove some Spanish billboards, and you could hardly tell one from the other.

Itís Monday morning, and Iím stopped for gas and breakfast in a small town named General Roca, when Anel Brstyl, a 68-year old farmer, and second-generation Austrian immigrant, sits at my table to chat. Heís interested in the motorcycle and my trip, at least a bit, but heís more interested in the US and farming. His English is amazingly good since he says that he learned it many years ago in school, and his opportunity to practice is limited. We talk for an hour.

Anel farms roughly 650 acres with excellent corn, soybean and wheat production, most of which is sold to Europe, China and Japan. He tells me there is almost two meters (six feet) of rich, black topsoil and that in spite of the economic turmoil of two or three years ago, the farms are prosperous. [Note: for those of you who may not have followed it, Argentina went through a severe fiscal melt-down about two years ago, the result of their peso, pegged at par with a very strong (at the time) US dollar, crushing foreign debt and a world-wide slowdown following the September 11 tragedy.]

Spring in ArgentinaAnel goes on to tell me that Argentina, blessed with an abundance of natural resources and a well-educated population, should be a very rich country. He opines that for over a century greedy politicians and a corrupt bureaucracy have squandered the countryís wealth; although he shares that not in anger, but with resignation. I have both read that, and heard it from other people as well. I offer that the American political system has problems as well, and he makes an interesting point. ďOf course,Ē he says, ďyou have political issues. The difference, however, is that in general, the administration of your government is not corrupt.Ē

Left to contemplate his comments, we shake hands and I throw my right leg over the bike. Off Ruta 9 now, and on secondary Ruta 92, I stop in the small town of Los Molinos to photograph flowering trees in full bloom against the backdrop of a blue sky and brilliant sunshine. Whatever the future holds, itís certainly beautiful in the Argentinean Heartland today.

I arrive in Buenos Aires on Tuesday morning to find everything well with Javier, Sandra and the bike arrangements. On Wednesday Iím able to finally meet Marcos and Patricia Trellini, motorcyclists and four-year Internet correspondents who contacted me not long after the Alaska trip in 1999. It is wonderful to finally meet them.

Iíll write about Buenos Aires when I resume my trip in December.



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