Posted on March 30, 2014
Travelers crave the authentic. They idealize it. And they brag about it when they achieve it.
Travel magazines, guide books and blogs do a great job motivating new tourists to pick up a passport and head to the airport every year which is AWESOME, however it also makes it harder for travelers (there is a difference) to make a real and unique connection to a place before it’s time to head back to the fluorescent life.
About a week ago Nathaniel and I managed to achieve one of those beautiful, authentic moments that made every time we’ve gotten stuck and had to pay too much for a hotel or broke down and bought American fast food (effing Tegucigalpa!) worth it.
It started in Lavalle Argentina, where the now familiar smell of gas was coming from Nathaniel’s gas tank and we suspected he had a new fracture in the tank, but couldn’t confirm till the morning as it was dark and we had rode 300+ miles that day.
The next morning Nathaniel went through the process of taking off his panniers and top box and discovered one of the weld seams on his tank was slowly oozing gasoline. We would wipe the spot where it was collecting dry and then gas would immediately begin spreading from a crack so small we couldn’t actually see it.
We had fixed a different fracture in the tank with JB weld a few days before, though the position of the new fracture made it impossible to seal with the JB Weld.
While we waited for the JB Weld to set, Nathaniel googled “KLR Mechanic Mendoza” because the next large-ish town was only about 30 minutes down the highway. I still think that phrase was an incredibly specific thing to look for, but it gave us the name, address and phone number of a man that according to legend is half mechanic half wizard. Looking at the thread about “Ariel” on Horizons Unlimited was impressive, although it was seven years old – just for the heck of it we gave the phone number a call and someone answered!
I asked if it was Ariel the mechanic and he told me it was. I next inquired if we could bring a motorcycle for him to look at and he confirmed his address for me.
Less than an hour later we were sitting in the middle of a residential intersection in Mendoza Argentina confused about which house was the mechanic’s shop. A pregnant woman motioned to me and asked if we were looking for the bike mechanic- I replied we were and she pointed to a house (her house). The woman was Ariel’s wife and a lovely hostess for the next two days.
The back of Ariel’s house opens up into a huge work space with dozens of motorcycles, cars, quads and even a full size truck tucked in cozily next to each other (also a couple of 60’s Ford Falcons). The walls are covered with every tool imaginable and the obligatory sexy lady posters, although he of course seems to be a loving father and husband.
Before we were introduced to this space he met with us out in front and told use he could help us, but that we needed to come back a few hours later at 4pm. Argentina takes ‘siesta’ seriously and from 2 o’clock to 4:30 pm it is often impossible to get errands done. Even banks and ATMs close during this time.
When we came back at four we rolled our bikes into the back portion of his house and Ariel’s assistant went to work draining Nathaniel’s gas tank after they had a look at the cracks and temporary repairs. Ariel floated around monitoring his assistant, drinking mate and helping another young guy in the shop who was working on his own bike. The whole process was very laid back, so after an hour and a half the tank was prepped for surgery and Ariel went to work with the blow torch.
After several blow torch sessions, we waited for what seemed like forever for the tank to cool down enough to be re-installed on Nathaniel’s bike and re-filled with gasoline. When we were ready to leave, Nathaniel asked Ariel how much he wanted for the work and Ariel told us not to worry about it and to come back the next day as he wanted to make sure the weld held and to ensure the quality of his work (it was now past dark). We were itching to get on the road, but agreed and then Ariel asked us if we would be able to return at noon and have asado with him and his family.
In situations like this I usually try to be polite and decline a few times before giving in. However, when an Argentinian gives you an invitation to eat asado at his house you say thank you and ask what time you should show up.
We arrived a little after noon the next day and things were awkward at first. Nathaniel doesn’t speak Spanish and Ariel clearly wanted his 11-year-old daughter to practice her English with us. It was interesting to talk to her and see what her life was like. Ariel double checked the weld and approved that it was going to hold, but he later joked to Nathaniel that he wasn’t giving a lifetime guarantee.
Eventually we all moved to the top floor patio of Ariel’s house where they have a brick grilling area built right into the patio. The conversation got easier once we all began to relax and I carried my miniature dictionary with me the whole day. I can communicated pretty well in Spanish (obviously), however I knew that over the course of the next several hours words would come up in conversation that I wouldn’t understand and I didn’t care about looking like a nerd leafing through a dictionary.
By the end of the day I was mentally exhausted.
It’s impossible for me to explain the feeling of being wrapped up in that afternoon. The conversation was warm and easy while I tried to translate back and for between Nathaniel and our hosts as much as I could, though the conversation never really slowed.
A friend of Ariel’s manned the grill which was fueled by a wood fire and although the stomach meat was marinated the rest only saw a generous sprinkling of salt before he laid the pieces out on the hot grill with the care and skill of a surgeon.
Argentinians don’t eat the meat once it has cooled off so there was one point where they took a cooled off piece from my plate and gave me a new one hot from the grill. I thought of it as strange, however there is no denying they are the masters of beef when you are crunching through the slightly crisped salty fat and biting into those simple delicious flavors.
I also really enjoyed their blood sausage, which was much softer than the blood sausages I’ve had in the past. It had the texture of pate on the inside and paired so well with the crusty fresh bread they had laid out on the table.
The entire time we sat on the patio I kept thinking to myself how lucky we were to be in that place at that moment.
As dusk came we started to say our goodbyes before disappearing off into the dark, back to our $20 a night hostel after having a dinner money cannot buy.
P.S. Ariel never did allow Nathaniel to pay for the services her provided, he said we had already paid with good company.
Posted on March 13, 2014
We visited the world’s largest salt flat – Salar de Uyuni a few days ago before making a big push toward the Argentinian border.
Posted on March 2, 2014
The day after Machu Picchu we leisurely packed our bags and had breakfast before asking the woman at the front desk of our hotel to please open the garage so we could be on our way. She said something to me that I didn’t quite understand, but I was so focused on hitting the road that I didn’t bother to clarify it.
As we rolled out of the garage onto a nearly empty street and on to Cusco’s Plaza de Armas it quickly became apparent that something was going on. There were no cars in the plaza and a few groups of police in riot gear stood in the shade at various locations.
I found this interesting as I slowly puttered behind Nathaniel, however things only got stranger as we moved our way through town. Avendia del Sol, like Plaza de Armas had no vehicles moving on it aside from a few other random motorcyclists and there were a lot of people walking freely in the street. As Nathaniel drove past a large group of men walking in the same direction we were heading one of them threw a rock at him, although I am certain by how casually it was thrown it was not meant to hurt him.
At the end of Avenida Del Sol we pulled into a gas station next to a huge roundabout where people were gathering en mass. The gas station attendants told us that we would have to wait till the protestors in the street moved on before they would serve us – it was at that moment a large white truck driving way too fast whipped around the circle and was met with a volley of rocks from the protestors. It was then we realized how serious things could be getting and I asked the gas station attendants what was going on.
They informed me that it was the first day of a two day protest that stretched throughout the region, though mainly focused in Cusco. People were protesting a variety of things including inflated government salaries, gas prices and false promises made by President Ollanta Humala.
It was because of these various grievances that people had called for a strike of all motorized transport – to prevent the use of gasoline.
After a few minutes the gas station attendants motioned for Nathaniel and I to go to the pump furthest from the street so we could fill up. They told us that they didn’t think we would be able to leave the city and they seemed frightened by what was going on.
Wanting a second opinion we exited the station and approached a group of police officers to ask them what they thought. It was at this point that the photojournalist in me started having an all out fight with the Autopista End part of me – Photojournalist Alex loves photographing protests. I knew we really had to be getting out of Cusco, on the other hand the idea of skipping this protest was getting more and more painful by the moment.
The police officers, probably not wanting to alarm us tourists, told us we would have no problem getting out of the city, although it would be easier if we waited till the afternoon to do so. The idea of sitting around in our gear for hours and hours was really unappealing to us so we continued on our way down the main road out of town till we saw a wall of people blocking the way. We parked about 6 blocks away and watched as several other motorcyclists and cars approached the people and quickly turned around and gave up.
Nathaniel and I discussed our options and decided the best thing for us to do would be to go back to the hotel, stow away the bikes and hit the streets to document was going on. Latin American governments don’t have a great track record when it comes to human rights violations and protests so if anything illegal happened I would feel guilty not being present to document it.
In the time it took us to leave our hotel and then turn around to head back to it the protest had picked up steam. There was no confusion as to what was going on now that Avenida Del Sol was similarly blocked with a wall of people waiting to stop any motorists from heading into the city center.
We stopped a safe distance from the protestors puzzled about what to do. They certainly hadn’t blocked EVERY street that could lead us back to the hotel, however riding blindly on the steep cobblestone streets of Cusco was another unappealing option (remember what happened to Nathaniel’s ankle).
We hadn’t been stopped for a full minute before two men on a small motorcycle pulled up next to us. The guy on the back was filming with an old fashioned camcorder so I asked them if they were with the television news.
The driver of the motorcycle cheerfully answered that they were and I told him I was a photojournalist from the United States. He got an absolute kick out of that and asked where we were going. I told him we were trying to get back to our hotel and described to him where it was.
He thought a moment and said they were also trying to get back to Plaza De Armas and told us he would lead us back to our hotel. “Follow me!” – and he was off.
We wound around through some small neighborhoods around the city center full of kids enjoying the traffic free streets with spontaneous soccer and volleyball games and in about 10 minutes we were back to our hotel without having encountered another blockade.
I thanked the moto-journalists profusely and with a grin and wave they were off to continue their work. I was absolutely brimming with happiness being part of the journalism community at that moment- we have a strong sense of camaraderie that transcends borders.
The hotel staff smiled when I came back in the front door and I joked with them about what was going on outside. We were given the same hotel room we had spent nearly a week in and were soon walking towards Plaza De Armas (the focus of the protest) me carrying a 5D Mark II and Nathaniel with his Go-Pro and Canon G12.
I was right in my assumption that the protestors would ignore our presence as long as we were not violating the motor vehicle ban. Nathaniel and I both agreed that at no time did we feel like we were in danger. This video our motorcycles friends produced shows us riding through Cusco during the protest, check 38 seconds into the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbwUKMoiTik
Photographing the protest was really fun for me because I haven’t had the opportunity to shoot an event like that in a long time and it is one of my favorite things to photograph. I love covering protests because the energy is high, you have to be alert at all times and people are usually so involved in what they are doing photographers can be truly invisible as they do their work.
Even the most laid back of subjects tend to be a little self aware in front of a camera, but that is hardly ever an issue during events like this.
I spent the next several hours photographing the protest and seeing if they AP was in need of any photos of the protest. Spoiler: They didn’t need the photos, however the Photo Director for the region told me he liked my work and to feel free to contact them again if I came upon anything else I felt was newsworthy.
With that bit of encouragement Nathaniel and I set off to get something to eat and re-prepare to leave Cusco the next morning. We ended up spending twice as much time as we wanted to in Cusco and even though we knew the blockades would still be up the following day we decided to roll the dice and make it happen.
I feel the need to paraphrase the day we actually left Cusco because this blog is getting really long and I don’t want to bore everyone to death who is still reading.
As we prepared to pass the first blockade out of the city some older gentleman told us to tell the protestors we were tourists and they would let us through. As Americans we are particularly nervous about volunteering that information (with all our gear on it’s hard to tell we are foreign), although the advice turned out to be invaluable for the next 8 hours.
The first blockade began hurling rocks and other things at me as I approached so I turned on my turn signal well in advance, stopped about 15 feet from them and motioned for someone to come up and talk to me. A man in a brightly colored sweater raised his arms in an effort to calm people as he walked up to me. He asked me one question – Are you tourists? When I said yes he started yelling at the crowd to let us through and that we were tourists. People kept shouting at us from all directions, but they stopped throwing things and let us through.
After some advice from the police just past the barricade we attempted to take the smaller streets to get out of the city. We spent nearly three hours backtracking, winding through neighborhoods and crossing pedestrian walkways in the most absurd places trying to get past all the barricades. I personally did not want to deal with having things thrown at me a dozen or so times and explaining over and over that we were extranjeros and in no way apart of the problem.
Then it began to rain… a blessing and a curse. My gloves and riding pants are not fully water proof so as I started to get colder and wetter people began to thin out and we ventured back to the main road out of town.
When we finally escaped Cusco the highway (beautifully paved by the way) was full of rocks, broken glass, piles of cacti, barbed wire, trees, burning tires, bits of cars and everything else people could get their hands on to slow or stop the flow of traffic.
There were at least 5 places the highway was totally blocked and I had to ask the people manning the blockades for permission to pass through. Although one group of people asked for money as we passed (we said no) everyone was perfectly willing to let us through when we identified as being non-Peruvians.
At one blockade they were having a meeting and I fell over as I tried to ride my motorcycle over the pile of trees they had laid across the road. As soon as I hit the ground 4 or 5 men from the group were helping me pick the bike up and lifted it over the barricade they had built.
After that – they helped Nathaniel to roll his bike safely over the trees and one of them gave me a good old fashioned “you be careful out there young lady” talking before we continued onward. By 4:30 we had only gone 80 miles and I was shaking with the cold. We stopped at a hotel for the night, giving up on the day, however with some really great stories about that one time we escaped Cusco in the middle of a protest…