Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It`s RIO ! The Highlights - June 30

Tuesday 6/30 - A tour of Rio`s top spots

Today I did the "Top Tour" of Rio with a couple of the "kids" from the hostel. It turned out to be a great way to see the top sights, and we had a great group.

Of course, I had to take the obligatory picture with a bevy (how many IS a bevy, anyway?) of beautiful women. In this case, it was Natalie (French) and Emily (French Canadian). Why do they always seem to look at me like a grandfather figure? Oh well, given no choice I can live with that.

Just so you won't think I'm JUST a dirty old man (not that I'm denying it), I also had Ronin (Irish) and Ignace (Belgian) for company. A truly international tour.

First it was up to the top of the hill to see the Christo Redemtor (Christ the Redeemer). This is an impressive statue, and the view is spectacular (you'll hear that phrase a lot in Rio).

Then we drove through Santa Teresa to Lapa. Lapa is at night a very hip area, but during the day it is just very interesting.

I was particularly impressed by the quality of some of the graffiti artwork. These artists have some real talent, and have documented some of the more famous (and infamous) residents of the neighborhood.

We also stumbled across a charcoal processing factory in a small shop. Even our guide didn't know that it was there. Imagine working in this dark, hot, dirty place for a living.

There is also a set of famous steps in Lapa. Evidently this was an ugly, dangerous neighborhood until a local artist decided that he wanted to improve it. He built a series of planters and steps up the hill, and then began putting in tiles.

Visitors began to contribute tiles from all over the world, and the "sculpture" grew. Two tiles of particular significance to me were from Panama and the Pacific Northwest Indians.

I also could particularly identify with one tile that I call "Words to Live By".
Translation: He who drinks gets drunk. He who gets drunk sleeps. He who sleeps cannot sin. He who doesn't sin will go to heaven. So... to get to heaven, drink!

I`m not sure that this is the official Church position, but given the lack of inventory control in the local sacristy I wouldn`t be surprised.

Then it was to a traditional Portuguese restaurant for lunch. Several of us had feijoada, a traditional Brazilian. Very heavy, and very good.
I later found out that feijoada is a Brazilian word that means `all the left over crap that we threw in with some old beans and rice`, but that didn`t change the tast.

Unfortunately, after that we were to visit the Pao de Azucar (Sugar Loaf) Mountain. I say unfortunately because we were to hike up the first half... a seriously steep and difficult hike. A full stomach was definitely not an asset on this portion of the tour. Rodrigo, our guide, is a botanist and gave us full description of all the plants and animals that could inflict permanent harm on us if we should touch, approach, or just think about them.

We then took the cable car to the top. Remember, yours truly has a "wee bit" of a problem with heights, but fortunately the anticipation was the worst part. The cable car itself was fine, although I made Natalie (the French blonde) hold my hand the whole time so that I wouldn't cry. Hey... it worked! I hardly cried at all :)

We arrived at the top just at sunset, and it was (here we go again) SPECTACULAR. It really is the best word to describe Rio.

As it got darker, the lights of Rio came on below us, and I won't even tell you the word to describe the view.

Arriving back at the hostel at about 8, I discovered that the feijoada didn't like me as much as I had liked it. So I split the night between my lower bunk and the porcelain throne, hoping for better in the morning. Oh well, that's the price of adventure!

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Road to Rio - June 28 - 29

Sunday 6/28 - The road to Rio

This is it... I'm officially in the same league with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour!
That is: I'm on the Road to Rio. (for you young`uns out there this might not make sense. Go study history!)

OK, maybe I can't sing, dance, or act, but I never saw any of them on a motorcycle either.
It was more rain and drizzle today. I'm getting sick of this weather! I tried to get all the way to Rio today, but it had been recommended that I take the scenic route. It would have been more scenic had I been able to see it through the weather, but at least there were less trucks. However, there were many more beach towns, and each one seems to try to outdo the others in the number of speed bumps it can put down. So it was very slow going.

After checking the Lonely Planet (an occasionally good resource, and sometimes even accurate... except for the prices which stem from the early 50s) I decided to stop in Parati for the night. This was described as an old colonial town with quaint cobblestone streets.

For the most part that is accurate. The buildings in the central district have been restored, and no motor vehicles are allowed. It is pretty much a tourist town, with tourist prices. I found a nice "pousada" ($30) just outside the historic center and went exploring.

Every once in a while you hit Kismet. In this case, it was a rehearsal for a street play that was to be put on the following week during an important literary festival. There were singers, dancers, musicians, and anyone else who wanted to join in. The play was about a famous Brazilian writer, Euclides, and his experiences during the war for Bahia earlier in the 20th century.

It was a real happening, and a lot of fun. I'm sorry that I won't be here for the actual performance.

Monday 6/29 - Into Rio de Janeiro

I left Parati with 29,875 miles showing on the odometer and continued up the coast. The weather was (Wait... you won't believe this) BEAUTIFUL. Sunny, warm, white puffy clouds. The kind of day that was made for riding. Aside from the overabundance of speed bumps, the drive was along a beautiful coastline.

Then I hit Rio de Janeiro, and the normal big city traffic. I finally found a hostel in Ipanema, a block from the beach. The hostel itself was nice, with a good common area, bar, and swimming pool. However, the prices here are unbelievable! US$23 for a bed in a nine bed dorm!

A double room (there are no singles) was $70... a definite budget killer. And this was for a plain room with no bathroom. I decided I could sleep with eight of my closest friends for a few nights, but was not too thrilled. Actually, everything was very high priced in Rio. It's a beautiful city, but next time I want to be on someone else's expense account.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Iguape and Jureia - June 26 - 27

Friday 6/26 - A day in Iguape

It has been raining all day, non-stop. Aside from taking my laundry to be washed (you can't imagine the excitement little things can cause), I spent most of the day at Christina's downloading pictures and catching up on correspondence. That night I took Christina out for a pizza. Ah, the joy of the little things!

Sat 6/27 - Iguape, Jureia, and a baby birthday party

It's overcast and drizzling... AGAIN. But I refused to spend a day in the house and decided to take a little ride to Jureia, which is supposed to be a little fishing village with miles of sandy beaches.

It's about a 20 km ride to Jureia, through mostly rural land and a few small villages. Then a short ferry ride to the village itself. The village is built along the bank of an inlet... brackish water and supposedly good fishing

I started to ride along the beaches, but ran into a lot of wet, deep sand. After my experiences in Chile, I now avoid sand whenever possible.

However, I happened to run into two guys who had been on the ferry with me at a bar/restaurant along the river. Discretion being the better part of valor, and temptation being the only thing that I am physically unable to resist, I just HAD to join them for a couple of beers. The setting was nice, the company was friendly, and the grilled robalo was just the thing to hit the spot.

There was also some interesting bird life. I happened to like this kingfisher perched next to the restaurant

That night Christina was having a birthday party... for her one-year-old niece. You can only imagine my excitement at the thought of dozens of rug rats nipping at my ankles. But it was interesting, as a cultural event. I have never seen such decorations for a one-year-old birthday. No wonder Disney stays in business.

Tomorrow I'll take off for Rio de Janeiro. Hasta la Samba!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Iguasu (Brazil) to Iguape - June 22 to 26

Monday, 3/22

I spent the morning trying to get the bike running right. I'm not sure if it was just crappy gas fouling up the carburetor, but I took off the tank and cleaned it, took out the carb and cleaned it as best as I could, replaced a throttle cable that was about to break, put it all together, and prayed. Miracle... the damned thing started! So I was off to Brasil.

It's only a few miles from the Argentina side of the falls to the Brazil side, but when you throw in immigration and customs for the bike it's still a 2 hour process. The day was compensating for yesterday's sun by being miserable and raining. I found a dingy hotel to camp in for the night, didn't want to watch one of the two Portuguese stations on the TV, so had a few glasses of wine and watched a movie on my computer. I love this little Acer netbook that I bought just before the trip3

Tuesday 3/23

I spent the morning at the Itaipu dam. This is on the border between Brazil and Paraguay and is a joint project between the two countries. It is the largest hydroelectric project in the world. It even puts out more juice than the Three Gorges dam in China will. The total output is a maximum of 14 megawatts per hour, which provides 20% of the electricity for Brazil and more than 90% of the electricity for Paraguay.

To put that in identifiable terms, that is the equivalent of 187 gazillion, 712 trillion, and sixteen double A batteries... or enough electricity to run 242 quintillion personal vibrators for 151 light years.

Eat your heart out, EverReady Bunny!

There are 20 separate generators in the plant. The actual production area stretches more than a kilometer, and the workers travel around inside the dam on bicycles or electric carts. As you can see, the shafts of each generator are huge.

One advantage of going on the "special tour" (which included all the areas inside the dam and power generating station instead of just the overlooks) was that we were actually on both sides of the river... Brazil and Paraguay. I had decided not to go to Paraguay since the only reason I wanted to go was that it's the only major South American country that I haven't visited (not counting those little French things in the upper right corner). But Paraguay doesn't like the US's visa requirements, so they charge us a hefty $130 visa fee (I can't blame them... it's the same as we charge them). It wasn't worth it to me to pay, but this got me around it. One more country down, but not in my passport!

Here I am straddling the border between Brazil and Paraguay.

In the afternoon I visited the Brazil side of Iguasu Falls. It is great view, but not as interesting as the Argentina side where you get up close and personal. Also, there are not nearly as many hiking trails. But still, the falls are spectacular.

Wednesday, 3/24

I'm off again, and having more bike problems. It kept dying on me every time I slowed down or stopped. Where the hell is that great mechanic that was supposed to come along with me? After trying to get it started again at a police check point (for half an hour), one of the many bystanders -- everyone has an opinion -- told me that there was a good mechanic in Cascavel, about 50km down the road. I got the bike started and kept hoping I would make it that far. It did, and fortunately the problem showed itself when the mechanic looked at it (it usually acts fine when a mechanic is looking, just like at the doctor's office). He immediately told me that it wasn't a carb problem, but was electrical. Turns out it was a short in the connector to the spark plug, and the wet weather made it worse. A $17 repair and I was on my way.

I raced the sun to get somewhere before dark, fortunately had no more bike problems, and arrive in Guarapuave just as night fell. Another day down!

Thursday, 3/25

A LONG travel day. Actually, I did longer days during the first part of the trip, but it's now winter and this has cut my potential travel time down by about 4 hours a day. Before I could travel from about 6:30 am until almost 9 pm. Now it's from 8 am to 5:30 pm. At least this will get better as I get further north.

Today's trip was an "all day in the saddle and my sore but is even sorer" type of day. I left Guarapuava at 9:30 and hit rain and fog all morning. This is also a very heavy truck route, so there was no fun there! They have double trailer trucks in Brazil, which seem to stretch for about 300 feet. Passing has to be very carefully planned.

After only two stops for gas, at 4:30 I finally got onto a secondary road and FINALLY felt like I was enjoying my riding. Although I was still racing the sun, it was a nice rural road... narrow and curvy just the way I like it. I was heading towards Iguape, on the coast of Brazil about 200 km south of Sao Paulo, and arrived (again) just as I was losing the light.

Iguape is an old colonial town that was founded by the Spanish, then given to the Portuguese by some pope in the 16th century. It sounded interesting and I was ready for some small town culture.

I pulled into the main square and found the tourist office. Ah... information! Well not quite.

First, nobody at the tourist office spoke English or Spanish. Why on earth would you expect that at a tourist office? Second, they thought that my inquiry about an economical hotel was quite amusing.. they had no idea! Finally someone suggested "the red building across the plaza" which was supposed to be a commercial hotel. Well, it used to be but it now a private house. As I was told as I was wandering around in someone's living room! But the people were very friendly and eventually Elizabeth (the owner) told me about a friend of hers who had some apartments for rent.

So here I am in Iguape, ensconced in a cute little bungalow (with an outdoor kitchen) for about 3 days for the princely sum of $15 a night. The owner, Cristina, also includes breakfast at her house a block away in the morning. A nice place to camp for a few days. It's raining, but hopefully the weather will improve and I'll get to explore some of the area. If not, I'll catch up on the blog!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Iguasu Falls - Making Niagara Look Like a Leaky Faucet ! - June 22

Sunday 6/21 – Puerto Iguasu, Argentina

The weather today was spectacular: Sunny and 70 degrees. A good day for Iguasu falls. It's about a 15 km ride from Puerto Iguasu to the national park, and a $15 admission fee for foreigners, but worth it. I met a young Finnish woman while at the information booth, which gave me someone to hike with.

The falls themselves are spectacular. They are right on the border between Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. While I hear that you get a better overall view from the Brazil side, on the Argentina side you get right up close and personal with the falls. Unlike Niagara falls, there is not a whole city of tacky shops surrounding the falls, just a national park and very nice hiking trails.

One of the most spectacular areas is called Garganta del Diablo, or Devil's throat. It has been calculated that to create this much water force artificially you would have to flush all the toilets in China, Russia, and Kazakstan twenty-seven times per minute. That, of course isn't counting the squat toilets, which don't use as much water.

During the morning the wasp that had flown up my sleeve yesterday decided that he wasn't done with me yet (his death not withstanding). As the morning progressed my arm was turning increasingly red, hot, and swollen. By noon I looked like Popeye, at least on the right side. So, discretion being the better part of health, I decided that a visit to the local emergency room was in order. Fortunately it was right across the street from my hotel.

After a five minute wait the doctor saw me and prescribed an anti-inflamatory injection. The nurse prepared a needle that had to be 8 inches long, attached to a syringe with about 2 liters of medicine in it, and told me to drop my pants and bend over. At this point I decided that maybe my arm really wasn't that bad and I didn't need any damn medicine! Oh well, I figured better to bare my cheeks and take it. By the next morning the arm was considerably better, although my butt was still in a world of hurt.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

On the Road Again: The Adventure Resumes! - June 17, 2009

Thornton Wilder once said:

"The test of adventure is that when you're in the middle of it, you say to yourself, 'Oh, now I've got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home.
And the sign that something is wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventures."

After three months of "sitting quietly at home" in Panama, I'm back on the road again. I left Panama on June 17th and flew to Buenos Aires, where I had left my bike. El Pinguino (remember: I had to name the bike after our adventure to Antarctica, and El Pinguino just seemed appropriate) was waiting for me patiently. I wasn't planning on leaving until the second half of July, but another adventure stuck its head out of the sand and I had to move the trip up. I've been offered a visiting professorship at Konkuk University in Seoul, South Korea, and have to be there to begin teaching (international business strategy) on September 1.

So this trip will be a little more rushed (maximum of two months), but that should give me a pretty good feel for the Atlantic side of South America. I came down the Pacific, now I'll return via Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia. The plan is to fly the bike back from Bogota about the 10th of August, spend a few weeks in Panama, and then off to Seoul. It's been 10 years since we last returned from Asia, so I'm looking forward to it. Initially I wasn't too excited about the idea of spending 7 or 8 months in Korea, but it turns out that their first semester runs from September 1 to the middle of December, then the next semester doesn't start until March 1, 2010. Plenty of time to return to Panama and remind Karen, Maggie, Josh, and Josie (the last three forming part of the Barnett Menagerie) who I am.

So, after my 5:30 am arrival in Buenos Aires I went to Dakar Motos where I had left the bike and waited for someone to wake up and let me in. A few minor repairs, and at 1:30 I was on the road again heading north. My first major stop would be Iguasu falls on the border between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.
My major worry about this part of the trip was corrupt police. Ruta 14 through northern Argentina is famous for cops looking for a little "coffee money", and I'm not always the most lawful driver on the road. What's a few more km per hour, anyway? The first night I arrived in Colon and had a nice room at the Hotel Rio de Pajaros. More importantly, after two hours sleep on the plane the night before I had a decent steak dinner, a comfortable bed and a good night's sleep.

Friday, 3/19

The constant repairs of the bike have started again. Last night´s problem was that nothing electric worked. That was an easy fix. It turned out that in fixing the turn signal Javier (at Dakar Motos) had loosened the wiring harness. it took me about an hour to find and fix. However, now the right turn signal isn´t working again, so I guess I can only turn left until I fix it.
This afternoon I ran out of gas and the speedometer only said I had gone 68 miles. Since I normally go about 200 miles before I need to get gas something was definitely wrong! I don't have a gas guage, so the odometer is my proxy. Actually, I don´t even look at the speedometer itself when I have the GPS on since I have the GPS in kilometers and the speedo is in miles. It turned out the speedometer had stopped working, and I hadn´t noticed (dumb). Anyway, I made it to a gas station on reserve, and fixed (I think) the speedo at the hotel. But I think I got crappy gas and the motor keeps sputtering and died a few times. I´ll drain the carb in the morning. In other words... when you travel by motorcycle you damn well better have a mechanic with you! Damn good thing I learned a few things, but I wish I had learned more.

My paranoia about the corrupt cops on Ruta 14 finally came to fruition today. I hadn´t been stopped yet, but this afternoon I came to the infamous roadblock at km 341. I new it was coming up and so VERY carefully followed the rules. I slowed to 80 at the 80 sign and 60 at the 60 sign. They pulled me over anyway. First the cop told me I was speeding and they had me on radar. I said (politely) BULLSHIT! I told the cop that I knew that they were there, that I knew that this section was very ¨vigilantly¨ patrolled, and that I wasn´t speeding. I also showed my badge. Then the cop asked me for my insurance papers. I had the copy of my Panama insurance, appropriately doctored to include an ¨international coverage endorsement¨, and an appropriate Panama document stamp, so he accepted that. Then he told me he could fine me because I wouldn´t have stopped if he hadn´t pulled me over. So I guess now they are mind readers! I told him that wasn´t true, that I had every intention of stopping, and I did stop. T
here wasn´t much more he could say so he let me go, and didn´t look very happy doing it.

Night time found me in Santo Tome, Argentina, in a POS hotel in a POS town. Oh well, tomorrow I should get to the falls and some more interesting opportunities.

Saturday, 6/20

More bike problems today. The bad gas I got yesterday is still plagueing me. The motor sputters and dies when I idle. I probably need to take apart the carb and the gas tank and clean them out. Then, just to make sure that I knew that the bike gods were out there, the starter wouldn´t work. It died at a gas

Fortunately Johnny, a very nice Argentinian guy (and a musician) came along to help. He actually then towed me with a rope with his 70cc minibike to a shop about 2 km away. It was quite a site to see! On the inclines we actually had to both run along with the bikes since his didn't have enough power to pull the "fat Penguino". Eventually we got to a mechanic who fixed the starter, but not the gas problem.

I also got stopped by the cops again today. This time it was totally my fault. While I hadn´t seen anybody passing over a double yellow line further south, up here they do it all the time. Of course when I did it there was a cop in back of me. It took a LOT of talking to get out of this one. They told me I would have to follow them to the station where they would lock up my bike until I paid the fine on Monday. I know that is complete bullshit, but they were hoping I would ask what I could do to avoid it. I finally talked my way out of it by a combination of ¨fellow cop¨ routine and telling them that the slow truck that I passed had kept motioning for me to pass and I thought he had a problem. When they finally told me they would have to fine me or their chief would get mad I said ¨I understand. Take me to your chief and I´ll talk to him too¨. They didn´t like that idea too much and let me go. Phew!

The next trauma occured when a wasp flew up the sleeve of my jacket. Ouch! Sore and red.
So, it´s been quite a day here in Argentina. I arrived at Puerto Iguasu at about 4, but you can only see the falls from the park (about 10 km away) and when I went there they would charge me the entrance even tho it closed in an hour. So tomorrow it's Iguasu Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World!