Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Worrying about crating the bikes

We knew the end of the trip was near. After two final days of riding we pulled into Valparaiso and up to the Villa Kunterbunt.

[Me thinking hard about getting back on the road with these guys] I suppose this is a good opportunity to write a little bit about what it felt like to be at the end of the trip. For me, it mostly felt empty, like a tank of gas after a long ride. I wasn't ready to be done with the trip by any means. I could have easily filled up the tank and kept going for several more months or years. In fact, at Villa Kunterbunt there were two motorcyclists who were getting ready to pull out and ride north through South America. As they were going through the ritual of packing up their bikes and putting on their riding gear, I felt a very very strong pull to do the same and head off on the road. One of these guys, Fred, has been on the road for 6 years and plans to be on the road for years to come.
But our tank was empty. We had had a brilliant 8 months of adventuring through many many places and meeting countless wonderful people along the way. All along, we knew that at some point the trip had to end at some point and the fact that we are ending it healthy and with the bikes intact is a huge bonus. 
So I didn't feel exactly sad. I didn't feel unsatisfied either. I felt more resigned to the fact that we needed to go back to the States. We both have work waiting for us and it will feel nice to get on top of it. I'm not saying I want to go back to work, but the work we have is interesting and if we are going to do it, then I want to get going on it and do the best job possible. Home was calling us and our direction was towards the US (not towards Brazil).

Villa Kunterbunt is a motorcyclist only hostel that helps many people with the import/ export of their bikes. It is run by a german by heritage woman, Martina- although she is pretty darn Chilean now, and her Chilean husband, Enzo. They own a 100 year old Adam's Family style house overlooking the port of Valparaiso and have a few extra rooms available for visiting motorcyclists. We had the tower room with a 360 degree view of Valpo (as the town is called).

[In the tower room] We looked into a few options for what to do with the bikes. Our #1 plan was to sell them in Chile or in Argentina. They are worth far more in South America than they are in the US and we knew that shipping was going to cost us (as well as use a lot of resources to get them home). We made some queries here and there and found quite a bit of interest in buying the bikes, but when push came to shove, it was actually incredibly hard (if not illegal) to sell the ladies. If a person wanted to buy the bikes, that person would have to figure out how to import and then license the bikes and including most likely having to pay someone off to make the papers. It would cost them a lot of time and money. Of course, we don't really care, as long as we get money in the bank, someone could have the bikes but in the end it all proved too complicated.

[proofing the palette in Enzo's workshop] So shipping the bikes home was the option. I suppose in theory we could have done it on our own, but sometimes it is just worth it to have help. Enzo and Martina know how to play the game. That and Enzo has a workshop where he could custom build a crate for our bikes.
The first quote came to $3200 for both bikes, but after convincing Martina that we could get both bikes into one big crate, I think the final bill came to $2500. Enzo was able to get both the bikes into a 2.8 cubic meter box which is pretty incredible and a testimony to his experience crating bikes.

So the process goes like this:
1. Measure the bikes from front to back and side to side (when they are in a head to toe configuration) with the front wheel removed.
2. Built a bottom palette to match these dimension and put the bikes on this to prove they indeed can fit. 
3. With the bikes tied down and the panniers in position, measure how tall the crate will need to be.
4. Remove the bikes from the palette and go to Santiago for the weekend to visit friends while Enzo builds the rest of the crate.
4.5 Arrive back in Valpo and realize that we left a passport in Santiago so at 11 at night drive the 75 miles back to Santiago in the fog to get it and then go back to Valpo.
5. Drive 60 miles to the port town of San Antonio with a truck in tow that is carrying the dissembled crate.
6. Go to a large lot where the consolidator will load the crate into a metal container to be shipped to the states.
7. Put the bikes back on the bottom palette, remove the front wheels, tie down the bikes, remove the handlebars and put everything on the palette in such a way as to not have it jiggle around on the voyage.
8. Build the crate up and around the bikes.

9. Spray paint my name and where the bikes are headed on the side of the box.
10. Visit 8 different offices in San Antonio to get all the paperwork in line.
11. Go back to the crate, kiss it farewell, and hope for the best.

We left the crate sitting in a lot without any paperwork attached to it except for my name spray painted on the side. Enzo ensured us that somehow it would be picked up by a forklift, loaded into a container, put on a boat headed to New York, reconsolidated into another container and put on a truck to Seattle and then arrive someplace near Seattle at sometime in the next 6 weeks.
With this reassurance, we handed over $2500 in cash without a receipt  and all we can do is hope for the best. We should expect a phone call (or email?) at some point in the next month telling us when and where the bikes will be. At that point we will reassemble the bikes and drive them away.

Now I know what you are thinking: "are you crazy?" But what other choice did we have? One thing we have learned on this trip is that at times you just have to trust people. There are times when you shouldn't trust people, but there are times when you should. Villa Kunterbunt has a good reputation and wouldn't be interested in screwing us. There could be some mistakes with the shipper/ consolidator, but we will deal with that if a problem arrises. 

[in the Bolivian Altiplano- wouldn't want to run out of gas out here] Another thing we learned on this trip is to figure out which problems are worth fretting about and which ones aren't. There are many many things that can go wrong on a motorcycle trip from Seattle to Chile. Many of these things you can anticipate and plan for- e.g. normal motorcycle maintenance issues for which you can bring spare parts, lack of gasoline in certain areas for which you can carry extra gas, spats between married riding partners for which you can have a process for dealing with.
But there are many things which you in theory you could worry about and plan for ahead of time but which might be best dealt with when the time comes- places to stay for the night, broken motorcycle pieces which you absolutely can not fix at a particular time and place, roads which may or may not go due to river crossings, shipping motorcycles home once we have left them in good hands. 
In short you have to decide what things to worry about and come up with a contingency plan for and what things to worry about when they come up. You can't worry about and plan for everything all the time. You'd simply get nowhere in life.
So that's it, the bikes are [hopefully] on their way to Seattle via New York (again- this crazy route is out of our control) we are headed back to Seattle for our 6 months to get going on our work (me with GORE-TEX and Megan with Montessori 123) and we have to start thinking about what to do next.
A kid is the most likely option but we really want to bicycle around New Zealand too. Perhaps we can do both.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Blueberries from afar

I've always felt very strange buying produce from half way around the world. New Zealand apples, peruvian asparagus, chilean blueberries.
On this trip we have seen the massive asparagus fields in the deserts of Peru. We have seen the controversial Quinoa in Bolivia (where because of foreign demand, Bolivians can no longer afford to eat this incredible grain). And now we have stayed on an organic blueberry farm in Southern Chile.

Jorge, Cristina and their son Felipe own a 800 acre farm in the fertile lands just east of Villaricca. It is a rainy area with a similar climate to Seattle and perfect for growing things like strawberries and blueberries.
Jorge and Martina used to raise cattle and sheep on their land as well as manage pine and eucalyptus trees and then 10 years ago they decided it would be cool to finish raising their three kids in Gig Harbor (40 miles south of Seattle). Jorge got a student visa for the family and they relocated. Of course, Jorge preferred going to the race track rather than school so Cristina had to get a job as a high school math teacher in order for them to keep their visa.

About 2 years ago, Felipe, their now 26 year old son decided he wanted to return to Chile and start working their land. He planted blueberries and raspberries because they can bear fruit relatively quickly and there is a good foreign market for the organic version. He also planted hazelnuts but those take a while.

[custom charcoal maker] The parents moved back to Chile this year by driving their car down and they all live together on this beautiful piece of property. They are hard workers and Felipe is learning a lot about running a farm. It is cool to see his inventions for organic farming and to learn of his plans for the land.

Blueberries by Felipe
So next time you see organic blueberries from Chile, know that we may know the family that farms them and they are doing cool stuff with their land. You can feel good about that. Whether you want to buy something that had to be shipped half way around the world is up to you. Depends how badly you are craving blueberries in February.
The farm house

Jorge helping me to put Megan's bike back together

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Slapped in the face by a monkey tree (or was it a rock) aka the case of the missing bolt

[fall in the rivers district of Chile] A quick administrative update: We are actually back in the states now but the last two weeks have been a bit adventurous and I haven't had time to blog. My goal is to get caught up in the next week so here it goes...

You know those days that start out so gloomy and then surprise after surprise comes along and by the end of the day you are on top of the world and feeling as happy as a monkey in a hot spring? Well... we had the opposite of one of those for our first day back in Chile. I suppose it ended up on a high note, but for a while I was feeling quite ready for the motorcycle trip to be over.

View From San Martin to Villaricca in a larger map

We left Argentina on the day before the day I'm about to talk about. Our planned route was to leave San Martin de los Andes and take the route via a long ferry ride that cuts through the mountains. The ferry didn't sail until 4 pm so we lingered around San Martin for the morning and finally got going around 2. We meant to leave at 1 but you know how it goes. This left us with 2 hours to cover 50 km of road and 1 border crossing into Chile.

Lets just say that at 4:01 they had to remove the chain to let us on the ferry. At least we made it although if we hadn't I can think of far worse places to be stuck for 24 hours waiting for the next ferry.

The ferry travelled about 25 km along a gorgeous lake with pristine forests on either side. It was a very nice ride and we even made an intermediate stop to pick some oxen and their load. These big fellows were very docile and obviously the best choice for some of the roads in these parts.

[Practicing my spanish with some Chileans] Once on the ferry we ended up chatting with a wonderful family who happened to live in the Seattle area for 10 years and had just moved back to their farm in Chile. They recognized our Washington plates and immediately invited us to their farm outside of Villaricca to come and stay. Our plan had been to bullet it back to Santiago as fast as possible but we couldn't pass up an opportunity to stay at an organic blueberry farm so we told them we would come to their farm the following night. Our map had a road that we wanted to try to drive and figured it would take us a full day to get to their place via this road (the road goes by 5 different hot springs).

[We could have stayed here but it was $300 per night] The ferry landed, we started to drive and before we could find a place to camp for the night it got dark. We don't like to drive in the dark, particularly on dirt roads but we didn't really have a choice at this point. We kept driving until we reached the Coñaripe Hot Springs resort. We turned down to the hot springs and found a very nice and very empty resort. We inquired inside if we could camp and we couldn't, so we treated ourselves to a very nice night at the springs. After cooking another round of Pasta Panamericana, we took a soak in the springs and fell fast asleep.

The next morning we took another soak and were on the road for the usual crack of noon start. Our map showed what looked like a decent dirt road that went up past an active volcano and then dropped down into the town of Pucon where we could then take good roads through Villaricca and over to the farm. We figured we'd be at the farm by 3 or 4. We were feeling great from the hot springs and ready to drive our last dirt road of the trip.

We passed the Geotermicas hot springs and stopped by to check them out. The price tag of $35 US per person kept us from soaking but this crazy place was super cool just to look at. They must be the project of a quirky person as there are 17 slate pools connected by a red walkway through a canyon with gushing water. They were fun to check out and if we had more money it would have been a great place to pass the afternoon. But we had places to go.
So with our heads high we continued up the pass towards the volcano. We passed a sign saying something about the road being bad and only for hikers and another sign saying something or other about 9 km ahead but we didn't really pay attention as we felt we could tackle any road that lay ahead.
The road got worse changing from a graded dirt road to a muddy track through virgin forest.

We stopped at a particularly nasty river crossing to discuss what we should do. I mentioned that there were some signs a while back saying something or other about a bad road and something happening in 9 km but I just couldn't remember what it actually said. Neither of us felt like turning around and although the road was very muddy in places, it wasn't that bad as long as we drove slowly. My main concern was for the bikes. Unloaded, this road would have presented only a small challenge but with all of our gear on the back, we were definitely pushing the suspension system with roots and rocks on the track.

We pushed on and eventually came across this skinny little dog way out in the middle of nowhere. With winter coming it didn't seem like there was anyway this guy was going to survive for very long. We tried hard to not care and just chalk this dog up to the cycle of life but we couldn't resist giving him all of our food (raw eggs, yummy bread, salami, cheese, peanuts). Of course this set him off to following us and that was ok. We figured we'd eventually end up near some sort of civilization and we could ditch him there.

[my signature head scratch- now what did that sign say back there?] About a kilometer further up we came to a steep rocky section of horrible road. It looked like we could maybe make it up the section, but reversing it could be tricky since it was quite muddy and we would be unable to use out brakes.

Amongst the 100 foot monkey-pinch-me trees we decided to go for it and just see what lay ahead. It was getting late but we really didn't want to back track. In hindsight we should have taken off the luggage and shuttled the bikes up the drop but isn't hindsight so smug and cocky? I got my bike up the section without too much trouble and then came back down to drive megan's bike up.

This didn't go so well. I fell over once in a not too bad of a place but then right in the middle of the most technical part I fell over again. As Megan was helping me back up she noticed a sheared bolt sitting under the bike. And it wasn't a small bolt. We looked everywhere on her bike for where this might have come from but couldn't find anything missing. That said, there are a lot of places that you can't see without taking apart the bike.

That was that. I wasn't about to keep pressing on into unknown territory with something or other coming in 4 km (remember- I didn't really read the sign warning of something in 9km) and a sheared bolt somewhere on the bike. We backed her bike down the drop, I went up and retrieved mine and we sat for a second feeling pretty lame.

[holding the broken bolt] There we were way out in the middle of nowhere with no food (we had fed it all to the dog), an assumedly broken bike, a dog that was about to die and it was getting late.
I kept trying to remind myself that this was the reason we took the trip in the first place: To test ourselves in tough situations and see how we do. That we certainly weren't going to die up here and that no matter what happens we could find a way out of it.
We took a final look at the bike and couldn't find any missing bolts. I bounced the suspension up and down and couldn't hear any rattles. So we made the decision that we really couldn't do much to fix the bike up there. That hopefully the BMW engineers had designed some redundancy into the bike so that it would still be functional even without the bolt.

[the drop that turned us around] We slowly picked our way down the road stopping every once in a while to let the dog catch up with us. Once we reached a few farms down below we started to speed up knowing that it would be hard to leave the dog behind but that hopefully he would find some sort of food source at the farms. At sunset we arrived back at Coñaripe and tried to call our friends who probably figured we had ditched them. A few failed attempts at calling them (why is it so hard to make calls to cell phones in foreign countries- we always seem to epic when trying to place a phone call at a "public" phone) and we kept pushing on.

[meeting Jorge and Cristina on the ferry, I don't who the guy on the left side of the photo is] Finally after arriving in Villaricca we managed to connect with our the blueberry farmers and with incredible generosity they said they would meet us on the main road near the turn off to their farm. A half hour later we met up with Jorge and followed him to their warm farmhouse and a bottle of wine.
So that was our day that went from warm and easy to strained and tense and back to happiness. Looking back on it, it was all happiness. I mean we were driving motorcycles through the back roads of the rivers district in Chile past hot springs and having some good old fashioned adventure. What more could you ask for? We can only hope that it turned out so well for the dog. He was a cute little fellow and I do hope he makes it through the winter.

Oh yeah... the bolt.
The next morning I woke up and started taking apart the bike to locate the missing bolt. My feeling was that it was the bolt that holds the top of the rear suspension to the bike since the bolt was the same size as the bolts that hold the bottom together. The F650 has a cool way of accessing this hard to get to place. You just have to remove two bolts from the subframe, separate the rear of the exhaust system and then you can hinge up the entire subframe (which hold the gas tank and all). And there it was, the other half of the bolt was still left holding the rear suspension to the bike. Just a teeny bit of jiggling and the bolt fell right out making a perfect match to the other half.
As luck would have it, there is a store in Villaricca called the House of Bolts where we found an exact match to the now broken offender. I bought two.

Fortunately, the engineers had built some sort of redundancy into this part. If the bolt had fallen completely out (which we are lucky that it didn't) the the rear suspension would have pushed up into a metal cup and been held there temporarily. Catching air would have dislodged it, but we rarely catch air on the bikes.

I'm not sure when the bolt actually broke. It could have been in the monkey tree forest or it could have been a long time ago and the weight of the bike just held it in. It is hard to say but I have learned of another inspection item on the F650. It is probably a good idea to lift up your subframe now and again and take a look at the bolt up there.

Sunday, May 01, 2011


I think it goes without saying that on this trip we have eaten food. We'd be dead if we hadn't.
For the most part we have eaten out because it is fun to explore the local cuisines and besides, it was so darn cheap to eat out. We went on a bit of a pizza binge in Bolivia since Bolivian food got a little tiring after a while.
[choosing a Maté tea to drink] When we crossed into Chile, we started cooking for ourselves a lot more. Eating out in Chile is expensive (unless you only want to eat a completo - which is a hotdog with guacamole) and really not that good for you so we started making our own food almost every lunch/ dinner.
Lunch is almost always salami and cheese sandwiches with mayo and savora (a mustard like sauce). The cheese, salami and bread is very nice down here and none of these ingredients really have to be refrigerated. And for some strange reason, I never tire of Salami.

Dinner is generally Pasta Panamericana or Sopa Austral. Basically the same thing either over pasta or in soup form. Carrots, onions, salami, kale or spinach, olives, spices. Saute these together add in tomato sauce a little dried milk and either put it over pasta or mix it into a soup with some chicken or tomato soup mix, delicious.

It is pretty yummy and it's always warm and nourishing. If the place we stay has a kitchen then we will make our Pasta Panamericana there or come up with some other creation that Megan finds online. If the place doesn't have a kitchen then we will fire up our trusty Optimus stove outside and create our meal.

Argentina is famous for its meats. Barbecued meat is called Parilla and basically you build a fire, take the hot coals and grill your meet over it. I learned how to properly do this when we were in Mendoza staying with my buddy Kevin. Under his watchful eye, I learned how to make the proper amount of coals and how to distribute them properly to cook the meat to perfection.

We found an amazing butcher next door to the mechanic in Bariloche. I walked in asking for a chunk of meat to BBQ and he comes out of the back with an entire side of beef. He asked me which part I wanted and I had no idea. I said "a delicious part" and he took the bandsaw to the beef and cut off a 2 pound strip of meaty ribs. I got giddy with excitement over the idea of cooking these bad boys up. I also took home a blood sausage and a few pork sausages just to be sure.
We cooked for some new friends at the hostel we were staying at because, lets face it, we just can't eat 3 1/2 pounds of meat ourselves. Our friends made up the vegetables and potatoes and together we had a feast.

[Holy Moly, look at that piece of meat] Going with the maxim "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" we went back to the butcher the next day and bought another cut of beef. Again, not knowing what to get, we just asked for something very delicious but without bones. He brought out an enormous piece of red muscle marbled perfectly with fat and cut us off 2 1/2 pounds of it. Again, we threw in some sausage for good luck and grilled it up. I don't really know the cut that we ate, but it was amazing. The fat on the outside browned a nice crisp and there was a gradation of brown to red on the inside that can only be described as yummmmmm. It was another indulgent feast.

For our last night in Argentina, we decided to go out to eat. I had taken a bit too much money out of the ATM and not wanting to exchange it to Chilean pesos, we decided to splurge a bit. Argentinians don't eat until 10 or 11 but at 9 we were starving so we walked around San Martin del Los Andes for and hour trying to kill time and find a place to settle in for the night. We landed at La Casona and it was the right choice.

I got grilled lamb with bbq'd potato on the side and Megan got grilled chicken with a mushroom sauce and fun fried mashed potato balls. Chasing it down with beer and wine was only a formality as we both savored every bite until it was all gone. There we were at 11:30 at night, our tummies full and dreading the freezing cold walk back to the hostel.

What better way to enjoy the walk then to stop for ice cream. The ice cream in these parts is off the hook. It is rich and sort of like eating the essence of whatever flavor you choose. We split a cone of dulce de leche (like a rich caramel) and dark chocolate. Wow! Even though we were freezing cold, we were fighting to get our hands on the cone as we shivered and licked our way home.
Today we head back to Chile and we will probably be back on the Pasta Panamericana diet, but for a few days we ate like we meant it and it was fantastic.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Gear Review of Vasque Mindbender GTX

Vasque Mindbender GORE-TEX® Footwear

I only get to bring three pairs of shoes that need to work for me for 5 months. Motorcycle boots are a no-brainer. Obviously a pair of flip flops makes it into the mix because they are lightweight and very practical (showers, swimming, easy to put on in the middle of the night to go pee, …).
That leaves one more pair to do everything else. These better be some mutli-purpose shoes and they better be comfortable.
After some deliberation, I decided to go with the Vasque Mindbender GTX shoes for no other reason than they fit my feet so well. That's always a good start when choosing a shoe- fit. The roomy toebox allows my duck shaped feet some wiggle room and the stretch GORE-TEX® Panel across the tongue holds my instep securely in the shoe.
With fit taken care of, I need a shoe that is waterproof because walking and running through wet grass and shallow streams works a lot better with a shoe that doesn't let water in. Of course there is a giant hole in the top of the shoe (where my leg comes out) but keeping water out of the rest of the shoe is a good thing. 
Waterproofness and durability are also top on the list since I don't like wet feet and I can't exactly get a new pair of shoes half way through the trip. With a GORE-TEX® Liner, my feet stay dry (unless I fall in a creek and the water comes over the top) and since Gore is always involved in the design and testing of the shoe, it is going to be durably waterproof.
It is hard to get exercise on a long motorcycle trip and running is one of the few ways I've managed to get my heart rate up. The Mindbenders are designed to be trail running shoes (and they are great at doing that) but I've pushed them quite a bit and run on the pavement as well. I've probably logged 150km of street running this trip and so my knees seem to be doing ok.
If there is a downside to these shoes (and every review needs to talk about some place for improvement), the rubber outsole on my right heel came detached from the midsole somewhat early on. It is now a little flapper on the back of the shoe. I could easily reglue this, but just haven't gotten around to it. Also, and this will happen with any waterproof footwear, after I fell into creek and my shoe filled up with water, it took a long time to dry, and in the process got a little stinky.
But with 120 days on these shoes, I'd say they are doing pretty darn well. I'm planning on putting them on my feet today to go trekking in the mountains above Bariloche.