January 29, 2011

The Big Apple

They call Buenos Aires (B.A.) the Big Apple with good cause. It's the largest city in Argentina with a population of 13 million bustling, friendly PorteƱos. The architecture is very European and so is the lifestyle with small, corner fruit and vegetable kiosks and lots of public transportation. Their excellent subway system costs about thirty cents a ride and the rail train to the outskirts is less.

To acclimatise ourselves to the city, we hopped on the HopOn-HopOff bus for a two hour tour of the down town, harbour front, historic and general points of interest. The first thing that stuck us was the number of beautiful parks spread around the city, each one dedicated to some military campaign or important personage and at the centre-a grand statue. One park, where we later had a picnic lunch, was dedicated to literature and contained statues of poets, writers and their subjects. The must-see attractions were:

Casa Rosada, the pink presidential palace where Evita spoke from the balcony.
Avenida Florida, a pedestrian street full of tourists and schlock sellers.
Puerto Madero, beautiful docklands where we boarded an 1899 three masted schooner .
Plaza de Mayo, where the “Mothers of the Missing” have demonstrated weekly for the past 30 years.
Recoleta Cemetary, final resting place of Evita and other famous Argentinians in their huge, marble mausoleums ornamented with unbelievably beautiful European statuary.

While the people and places look well cared for, there is an undercurrent of poverty and we were constantly warned about pick-pockets. On our first ride on the subway, Steve found out first hand when he had his wallet lifted but fortunately he noticed it immediately and made a dive for the thief as he was about to get off. Panicked, the thief threw the wallet onto the floor and ran up the stairs. On our rail train ride back from Dakar Motos, we saw a large shanty town beside the tracks-further proof of their on-going economic challenges. One of the fun parts of riding the rails was subway shopping. A pedlar would come through the cars and leave whatever he was selling on each person's lap. Then he would make his way back collecting either the unsold product or the money. Or we would be entertained by musicians playing beautiful Latin music or perhaps lectured by a preacher, politico or pauper in Spanish, of course. They too would make their way back through gathering their centavos from generous passengers.

We've been staying in a two bedroom, fully furnished and equipped apartment in the Palermo area which is close to shopping and subways. Its been a nice break to eat what and when we want and get a way from the steady diet of ham and cheese and bread. We've also been able to find a great Indian restaurant where we met Shawn and Crista, from the Polar Star, for a nice evening of travel talk.

We have been advised that Buenos Aires is the best place for shipping the bikes so we are working with Dakar Motos to that end. Ross and I will be flying the KLRs to Heidelberg, Germany and Steve and RuthAnn's Beemers are going to Miami, Florida. The shipping cost is not much different between air and sea but the preparation and paperwork is easier by air so RA and I are all for that!

The current plan is to ride up to Iguazu Falls for the week then return to B.A. where we and the bikes will ship out. We have decided to cut out Brazil due to the heavy rains and flooding and save it and the Amazon for another trip.

And to answer that burning question: No we haven't tangoed yet. But we're not out of here yet either!

January 27, 2011

The Top Ten Things You Always Wanted To Know About Wind And Motorcycles

We are in Buenos Aires and out of Patagonia and away from the strong winds that we have written about in the past.  Here are some observations on motorcycles and wind:

1.   Wind is strong when the bike in front of you is leaning left in a right-hand sweeper.
2.   Wind is a Beast--it is noisy, even when you are stopped you must yell to be heard.
3.   Wind is insidious--even a quartering headwind will eat away at your fuel supply at a faster rate than you think is possible.
4.   Wind that is gusty can hit you from either side in a matter of seconds--be ready for it.
5.   Wind at your six o'clock is good--you get great gas mileage and you can hear your bike's motor.
6.   Wind velocity is considerably lessened in the wind shadow of a guard rail; trucks cast even a better wind shadows.
7.  Wind that suddenly stops is a scary thing--be ready for its return at anytime from any direction.
8.   Wind that is constantly howling is really annoying.
9.   Wind will cause the authorities to close roads to all traffic--especially after a couple of buses are
blown off the road.
10.  Wind will unzip your conspicuity vest.

January 16, 2011

Pampas & Papas

Leaving our little cabin in Ushuaia was a bit sad as we had spent almost two weeks there and our first Christmas away from home but it did feel good to be back on the bikes. Riding north through Tierra Del Fuego was fun as we climbed up into the mountains in the cool morning air. We got our last glimpse of the Beagle Channel where we had sailed just the day before and the devastation caused by the Canadian beavers. Seems our national symbol were imported to start a fur trade but it never happened and they have since been busy procreating and chopping down trees. Sounds Canadian, eh?

We retraced our route up the east coast in beautiful, sunny weather back through the winds of Patagonia to Comodoro Riviadavia where we had crossed over from the west a month before. The east coast is flat scrub land as far as the eye can see with only the occasional herd of guanacos to break the boredom. Condors made a brief appearance and we did meet some interesting people at the gas stops. One was a couple from Australia travelling on a GS and planning to be in the US in 2012! They are mining consultants who go home and work for a couple of weeks every three months and travel the rest of the time-nice work if you can get it. The other was a young Indian guy riding a KTM who had lived in the US for about five years and was going home to Mumbai to be married next month. But here's the best part-he had gone to school in Green Bay, Wisconsin home of the Reynens! We are constantly amazed at what a small world it really is.

After about 2,000 kms heading north, we saw trees! And then grass! And finally farms with cattle, horses and crops. This is the La Pampa. One crop was sunflowers and what a picture they made! A huge field of their smiling faces all looking in the same direction. A few wild ones were growing at the side of the road, looking like they had escaped the fields and were hitch-hiking out of there. Of course, along with all these signs of civilization came traffic. We are following Ruta 3 to Buenos Aires which is a well paved two lane road but with all the truck traffic moving slowly, cars are forced to pass. And pass they do at warp speed inches from our saddlebags. I still have trouble reconciling how such kind friendly people we meet in gas stations become death threats the minute they hit pavement.

Gas remains a problem and we fill up at every opportunity. Yesterday, we encountered long lines at a gas station waiting for a tanker to show up. Kind of reminds you of the shortages in the '70s. However there is no shortages of potatoes or “papas” in Espanol. Steve grew up on a potato farm and is our resident expert as we sample the 'fritas' (fries), 'pure' (mashed), 'crema' (with milk and butter) or my personal favourite 'mixto' (with mashed potatoes and squash). So with all this ballast, we expect to roll into the Big Apple, Buenos Aires tomorrow where we have rented a two bedroom apartment for two weeks. Tango anyone?

January 9, 2011

Sailing South

When my granddaughter, Jordyn, was younger, she used to sing a song about continents and point them out on our globe. Well, Jordyn, we have now been to all seven! This was another goal of our trip and what an amazing experience it was!

Ninety-six passengers, including us, boarded the Polar Star, a Swedish icebreaker in a former life) on December 29th and sailed calmly into the Beagle Channel (named after Charles Darwin's ship). That evening, after taking our seasickness medication, we entered the Drake Passage which turned out to be relatively uneventful and we spent the next two days reading and napping and trying to get our sea legs.

New Year's Eve was our first landing. Zodiacs were launched and ten people boarded each one with one of the Expedition Guides who drove and provided commentary about what we were going to experience. This outing was to the Arctowski Research Station on King George Island which is operated by Poland and our captain and crew were Polish and it was New Year's Eve and so ….... Cheerski!

This was our first penguin sighting and we were all thrilled to see them waddling along-many quite close as they have no fear of humans. The first thing we learned about penguins is that they STINK! The smell of penguin poo permeates places. Consider they live on a diet of fish then add the natural processes and you can begin to imagine the stench. Its called “guano” and was actually harvested in the past for fertilizer. Penguins walk single file and make 'penguin highways' lined in guano where they walk, slide, fall to and from the sea to their nests high in rocky outcrops. We were fortunate that we arrived just after the chicks had been hatched so we saw lots of fluffy, grey babies still at their parents feet (moms and dads take turns sitting in the nest) and feeding them the regurgitated fish they have eaten.

Back to the ship for New Year's Eve, where we were just in time to hoist a glass of champaign and toast the new year. No fashionistas here! Most people were still dressed in their trekking clothes but RA and I managed to dash into the outfits we've been dragging along for three months for this occasion. We were totally overdressed! Speaking of fashionistas, we had a celebrity on board. Roberto Cavalli, a 70 year old, Italian dress designer with his gorgeous 25 year old 'assistant' who had flown in on his private jet and had his own personal Zodiac and expedition guide. He was there doing research for his next collection labelled 'Arctic White'. We were a little miffed that he didn't ask for our input! The passenger list was quite diverse with over half being Americans, 10 Canadians and the rest Ausies, Germans, Swiss and one Israeli. With open seating, we were able to meet most and I'm sure the Reynens enjoyed a respite from our constant presence!

We made two landings a day and one day three-visiting four research stations: Polish, Ukrainian, British and Argentinian. Its hard to narrow down exactly what they're researching. There's just so many penguins you can count. Speculation is they are primarily guarding their sovereign rights to future mineral, gas and oil deposits. On these daily outings, we would land where we could watch penguins (Gentoo, Chinstrap, Adelie), seals (leopard, fur, Crabeater, Weddell) and giant petrels. On our way to and from the ship, we would divert course to get up close and personal with the icebergs. These ranged from giant edifices 25 feet high and long as a football field to translucent, dimpled bits that you could pick out and taken back to the ship to cool your drinks. What's surprising is the beautiful blue lines and shadows caused when oxygen is compressed from the 100,000 year old ice or dark stripes containing the soil and gravel dug out by the glaciers on their way to the sea.

But without doubt, one of the highlights of the trip was the morning we were awakened at 6:00am to see the orcas that were spotted ahead. We all dressed and rushed to the bow in time to see them swimming along side the ship, blowing spumes of water in the air and jumping out of the water and diving back down. This is a sight I will never forget! Later on we saw Humpback whales but, as you know, the first time is always special.

So we had a glorious trip but every silver lining has a cloud. On the way back, the Dreaded Drake dished up a force 8 gale which literally pitched you out of bed! Thanks to Dramamine, we arrived back in Ushuaia none the worse for wear with very fond memories of the White Continent!

January 7, 2011

The White Continent

We're baaaack!!!!

 We were quite pleased to see that SPOT was able to get out a few hits just off the Antarctic Peninsula-- in a area that SPOT's website says there is no coverage!!  We could probably write a small book about our experiences on and off the Polar Star and the narrative will be forthcoming.  Suffice it to say we had the experience of a lifetime and were the first this season to make every planned Zodiac landing, TEN of them!

What follows is a series of words and phrases that will answer/raise some questions:  Beagle Channel, relatively calm Drake Passage, Polish, Ukrainian, Argentinian and British rresearch stations, shots of homemade vodka, Crabeater, Leopard, and Weddell seals, Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie penguins, penguin poop, Orca and Humpback whales, whale bones, research station ruins, hills to climb on scree and snow, sliding down a steep snowy slope on our backs, designer Roberto Cavalli on board, 96 passengers, 44 staff and crew, 17 nationalities, albatross, skuas, petrels and other birds, icebergs of every size and shape  imaginable, berg ice in our drinks, penguin highways, penguins swimming, diving, waddling along, and stealing rocks from nearby nests, penguin eggs and chicks, 2 hours and 35 minutes from sunset to sunrise, plenty of seminars and presentations to keep us busy, good food, open bridge policy, cabin upgrade, daily international, US, and British news printouts, Dramamine and "the patch", engine room tour, many, many conversations with other passengers, expedition staff as experienced and professional as they come, daily temps 3-8 C, snow, rain, some sunshine, Antarctic Convergence, krill, talent show and sing-alongs, no tipping, entering and exiting Zodiacs with sit and swing technique, Force 8 winds on the Drake for our return with chairs tipping and plenty of cutlery and dinnerware hitting the floor, etc.,etc.

So, we are back in our cabin and will be off towards the Chilean border in the morning, but not before meeting some of our new friends for dinner this evening.

Part II is complete; Part III will take us north into Brazil and then ??????