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The main purpose of this blog is as a permanent record of my adventures throughout the Americas by motorcycle. Feel free to comment or ask me any questions - I'm an open book.

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Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Christmas, Farewells and the Return Home

Well, after 7months and over 33,000km, I have finished my trip and have returned home. I am now writing this from my desk back at home in Perth, Western Australia. First observations - not as exotic as a beach in Mexico or the snow capped Andes, but comforting in its own way. I've actually been putting off writing this last entry for a while now. Partly because sitting down and writing is not my favourite thing, but mainly I think because it marks the end of such an incredible journey, one that I really didn't want to end. 

After stepping off the M/V Ushuaia, I headed up to the hostel, and was relieved to see Izzy in the same spot as I had left her. After so long apart, I was feeling like a part of me was missing - not in an emotional sense, more in an anatomical sense. I felt like I had my legs reattached or something, it was kinda weird. But there was no time for sentiment - a couple of my fellow Antarcticans had invited me to join them for a walk through the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The park was very beautiful, but the weather didn't match. Amazingly, it was actually colder in Ushuaia than in Antarctica - the good luck that we had experienced weatherise came back to bite us in the ass, with freezing rain and wind.

The next few days was spent searching for a buyer for Izzy. Although the sentimental value is high, to ship her back to Oz is prohibitively expensive (in fact I bought Izzy in the US, as it was cheaper than shipping the bike I have in Oz). I had originally hoped to find a local charity willing to take her off my hands, and then sell her. Unfortunately, I couldn't find an appropriate local group so I started to advertise everywhere - I found the local classifieds, and advertised online. A few nerve racking days later, and an man from Buenos Aires man had committed to buy her. It was time to go out and celebrate, so I met up with Mark and a few other riders, and we hit the most southern Irish bar in the world for a few pints of local beer. A few turned into a few too many, which then turned into far too many. The hangover the next day was truly epic - I only started to properly function again around 4pm! Highlights of the night - making great new friends, and successfully distracting a cop for long enough to allow Claude (a rider and native Quebecer, living in Miami) and others to get in a taxi and avoid a drinking in public charge. Good times. 

I had resolved to spend Christmas in Ushuaia, not because Ushuaia struck me as a magical location for such a time (although snow in the southern hemisphere is a rarity), but because travelling around any kind of religious holiday is just not smart in Latin America. Basically, if Christmas or Easter (known as semana santa - holy week) is around the corner, you bunker down and wait it out. Transport companies and border controls are out of control, and tickets can sell out months in advance. This feeling was justified by the rumours of long delays and cancelled flights at Ushuaia airport, that unfortunately meant that many travellers ended up stuck in transit during Christmas, instead of making it home. 

However, Christmas eve at the hostel turned out to be an absolute blast. The owners spent most of the day preparing a lovely meal of steak and empanadas, which we all devoured. Sitting at one long table, eating and drinking the local delicacies with people from all corners of the globe, I felt strangely at home. I guess I am truly a traveller at heart. We finished off the night with copious amounts of champagne, dancing, and a visit from Santa Claus, delivering chocolates as gifts from the hostel. 

The next day I headed over to the house rented by a few other riders for a end-of-the-world Christmas lunch. After posting on ADVRider about a possible meetup, we were inundated - for riders, Ushuaia represents a significant milestone in a journey, and for many of us represented either the beginning or end of an epic adventure. It was fantastic to see so many people there - I've never seen to many long distance riders in one spot at one time (got some great photos)! I met Nick again, who I'd first seen near Bariloche, and we caught up. Maps were brought out (of course) and war stories were shared by all.

Boxing day was one hell of a day. The original plan was to ride into Rio Gallegos, and leave the bike there for the buyer to pick up (avoiding the need to import and export Izzy through Chile). I was then going to catch a bus from Rio Gallegos to Punta Arenas, and fly to Santiago before flying to Oz. However, I was unable to get in contact with the us companies (Christmas and all), and was nervous about whether or not I'd get a seat. As it turns out, I didn't need one. As I was approaching Rio Grande, a fairly nondescript city built on the oil industry, Nick caught up to me (I was crawling by this stage, as I just wanted to make it and avoid the bone chilling wind). We pulled over for a brief chat, but had to get going, as I had a long ways to go that day. Pulling off the shoulder back on to the road, I almost came off as Izzy slid all over the place. I stopped, looked behind me, and cursed loudly. I had ridden nearly 30,000 km without a single flat tyre, and now this was puncture #5. I pulled out the can of fix-a-flat, and got into town. Pulling into the service station in Rio Grande, I met up with Nick again. I explained the situation, and together we tried to find a solution - would I make it? what would become of Izzy? after inflating the tire (by hand, as the air pump at the station had predictably died) and plenty of CPR/"Don't you die on me" jokes, I decided to wait and see how the tire would hold up after riding to a B&B recommended to me by Nick. The plan - if the tire was fine, I'd head for the border, if not then Rio Grande would be the end. After filling up, I headed out for Ruta 40 B&B. We made it a dozen blocks before I knew this was the end of the trip. Flat as a pancake hit by a steamroller. 

I walked to the B&B, and talked with the owner Willie who agreed to make room for me (they were full, but he gave his room and slept outside). After I got settled in, I emailed the buyer in BA, and told him the bad news - I needed to be in Punta Arenas the next day, so would have to leave her in Chile, or Rio Grande. Willie then went out of his way to help me - we picked up Izzy in his van, dropped her off at a nearby motorbike mechanic, and bought a new tube. By the afternoon, we were set - I was going to ride into PA, and leave her there & hope to find a buyer when back in Australia. I got food for dinner, but was invited to join my fellow travellers (all riding bicycles or motorbikes) for a communal meal. It was my last true traveller meal, and I loved it - I will really miss having dinner with complete strangers with fantastic stories and a combined sense of adventure.

The next morning was chaos. I woke to have an early breakfast, and prepare for the last ride. Then I checked my inbox - the buyer had replied that he could get the bike from Rio Grande, but not from Chile. Panic mode engaged, we were off to the bus station as soon as it opened (after doing some preliminary packing) to get a ticket to PA. The clerk said they were all sold out, but that people sometimes don't show, so we should return in an hour when the bus arrives to see if we could get a spot. Back to the B&B, I packed as though the bus was guaranteed - the new(est) plan was try for the bus, and if that fails repack onto Izzy and head for PA under my own steam. Heavy stuff was dumped or given away and the rest was packed.

It is probably worth mentioning that permanently importing bikes into Argentina is prohibited. The ridiculous import duties (80% up to 400% of the value of the vehicle) when vehicles are able to be imported mean that foreign vehicles are in high demand on the black market however, and Argentinians are resourceful people. I didn't particularly want to break the law, but with little other options available and a populace desperate for decent (foreign) vehicles, the black market is a common and reasonable resting place for motorbikes in Tierra del Fuego. To protect those within reach of the Argentinian legal system, I won't talk about the particulars of selling Izzy, or mention the buyer by name. I will say that the money I received from selling Izzy has now created a pool of funds to finance microcredit in perpetuity to disadvantaged people, through an organisation called Kiva. I have focused on transport projects in countries we visited, such as El Salvador and Bolivia. It is a good feeling to know that even though she isn't mine anymore, Izzy is still going to have a positive impact in the communities that were so welcoming and helpful to us. 

After packing, I said a hurried goodbye to Izzy, and raced to the bus station. There was a small line of people who were also waiting for last minute seats, which led to a very nervous wait. 9 months away and 103 days on the road, and it all came down to 10 minutes - unbelievable. Thankfully they space for all of us, so I hugged Willie goodbye, and jumped onboard. 1 obstacle down, a few to go. I had packed my motorbike gear deep in my bags, and made sure that everyone on board knew my cover story - I was going to PA to get a new sprocket, before returning for the bike. I had taken my old rear sprocket as a souvenir, and anyone with knowledge of vehicles in Tierra del Fuego would know that PA is the best place for parts, so it made sense. I didn't like lying to my fellow travellers, but I disliked the thought of being stopped at the border far less. It was a tiny border, so I was a bit worried - was someone going to recognise me (unlikely), or would they check all the bags, and wonder why I had a helmet with me (possible)? I was packing it big time. Then I looked at my passport.

It was already stamped. The bus station had an Argentinian immigration rep who had stamped us all out of Argentina. We ended up stopping at the border only so someone could use the bathroom (and give me a mild heart attack). Getting into Chile was a simple affair - as none of us were importing vehicles, customs didn't care. Immigration was easy, and Quarantine had the dogs sniff the bags, but no x-rays of checked baggage. Total time: 15mins, tops. Into Chile, I was smiling from ear to ear. The bus was running behind schedule, but my first flight wasn't until the next day, and they were all spaced out, in case of such delays (post christmas period, and all). I had made it, and it was around then that the reality started to hit - I had left Izzy, without really saying goodbye. In the end, it was probably for the best as it was so rushed I was unemotional.  We crossed the Magellan straight at the main ferry (as opposed to the unpopular one I took last time), and made it into PA. I checked into another B&B (carrying your own luggage makes shopping around for accommodation difficult, and I was getting lazy), and went out for dinner. 

I met an Irish man in a burger joint, when he asked if I knew how much fuel costs in Chile/Argentina. I must have been a bit enthusiastic with the info, because he caught on pretty quickly that I must have done a long trip. After I explained where I have been/ what I've done, he explained his situation: he was trying to get north past Santiago by driving someone else's car for them. It's a popular and reasonable option in North America - if a rental company or individual wants a car moved interstate, they advertise online for people who are headed in the same direction. Not so popular in TdelF, so he was having trouble getting a vehicle. He decided to advertise in the local paper, and ended up making it onto the local news! He said they were desperate for information, and ate his story up. I kicked myself - how many local TV segments could I have been on? There were many of us doing similar trips, but how many think to talk to the local news about it? Next time.

The next day I wandered around the town, and got a taxi to the airport. When I tried to check in my two bags, I was told that my ticket limited me to one bag. I had foreseen this however, and unfolded a giant storage bag I had bought earlier. 2 bags became 1, and I handed it over with a giant shit-eating grin that just screamed "checkmate". it all came under weight, and I walked through the security checkpoint without security personnel (all probably on break). In the departures lounge I scared the bejesus out of some kids when I approached them and asked if I could charge my iPod from their laptop. They nodded, and I bent down to plug it in, when they freaked out. It turns out they didn't speak Spanish, and had nodded out of confusion (I sympathise). I tried English, and got the same response. Then I listened to the movie they were watching, and realised that they spoke French. 3rd time round I just asked where their parents were. Asking the father turned out to be far more productive, and I had a fully charged iPod for the flight. Which couldn't distract me from the unnerving noise that the plane started to make as we taxied to takeoff. Anyone familiar with the topography of southern Chile knows it is not the area to attempt an emergency landing, and as I looked out onto the Andes mountain range colliding with the Pacific Ocean, I pondered the peculiar possibility that I might cross the globe by motorcycle, only to crash on the flight home. Obviously we made it to Santiago (after stopping to drop off and pick up passengers along the way!), and I got a minibus to the hostel.

I had booked a private room, but when I got there I was told they had no record of a booking, and only had the dorm available. I didn't really mind, as I had booked the room so as to not wake others. As it turns out, all but one of the fellow dorm residents didn't make it back - their beds were empty when I fell asleep, and when I awoke. Santiago must be a hell of a party town. I repacked, and got to the airport. Obligatory airport stuff dealt with, I went duty free shopping. I got Alfajores, and my favourite Caribbean rum (Flor de Caña, which then broke in Sydney). I ran into Jen and George, two Queenslanders who I had met in Antarctica. Stepping onto the plane (after surrendering my deodorant and saying a prayer for my fellow passengers), I felt home already. QANTAS is just awesome like that. I may fly cheap domestically, but international flights for me are always with the kangaroo if possible. Aussie beer (James Squire Golden Ale, thank you very much) and entertainment, not to mention I could understand the crew. Bonus: I was wearing my Boca Juniors Soccer shirt, and was told by a (obviously Argentinian) steward that "you can get whatever you want wearing that shirt". "Another Golden Ale then thanks". The trip was about 15hrs, but it just flew by. The saddest realisation while flying is almost a tossup: from Punta Arenas to Santiago I covered in 4 hrs what had taken a month of desert and mountain riding through gravel, rocks and mud. Santiago to Sydney, we ventured further south (>70 Deg) than we had when visiting Antarctica. But the saddest realisation was that it was all officially over - I was returning home.

Getting through Sydney airport was surprisingly easy. Interestingly, because I couldn't say for sure if I'd still be in Oz in a year, I was stamped in as a visitor. It seems I am a traveller in my own country. Got through quarantine pretty easily also, as I was pretty in tune with what they wanted to know. 30 seconds of questions, and I was out the door to my last flight, arriving in Perth on time. 283 days away, and I was finally home.

I have been back in Perth for over a month now, and only recently feel settled in. It is a unique feeling to walk around your hometown and recognise buildings, but still feel a certain alienation. I could only liken it to visiting a city like New York or Paris. Everyone knows what the Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower looks like, but it still feels different seeing it in real life. Of course, I have a stronger connection to Perth than your average tourist, but I still felt like I didn't really belong. I have definitely changed - and not just in my enjoyment of siestas. Politics matters far more to me now (it was pretty important previously), and it would take a lot of effort to stress me out now. I now appreciate aspects of Perth (beaches, weather, the beautiful people) more than ever, and scoff when people bag it for a variety of reasons (if you think Perth is boring, I have bad news for you: the problem is in the mirror. Perth has a lot going on, you've just got to look). 

I'm also truly addicted to travel, and have started to plan my next trip - anyone keen to learn Russian and ride a motorbike with me?


  1. yo mike let me know when you decide to ride russia...

  2. Here you can sell and buy both new and used products.
    Free classified sites are perfect for selling just about anything at all.
    More at free classified ads