Saturday, 5 April 2014

Guardian Angels

By Sanne

We left San Rafael after 5 weeks at Finca Rita to move north to Uspallata. Uspallata is where the Brad Pitt movie ‘7 Years in Tibet’ was filmed, although neither Mark nor I have ever seen this movie. When we turned out onto Ruta 40 and the Andes mountains towered next to us we both got a smile on our faces; we were both so happy to be back on the road again.

We wanted to go to Uspallata via a back road that was on our map but somehow, somewhere we missed a turn and ended up back on Ruta 40 after a detour through some little villages. This was when my bike decided to start playing up. All of a sudden my gears wouldn’t change. Odd. In fact, after some experimenting it turned out that I could change gears but my gear lever wouldn’t return back to its centre position. The good news was that it was still rideable, the bad news was that we suspected it was the return spring in the gear lever shaft that had snapped and that this was something we couldn’t fix ourselves in that we would need a work shop to fix it and of course a new spring. Hmm…well it really hadn’t been in our plans to go to Mendoza but now it seemed we didn’t have much of a choice. However it was late afternoon and we decided to stay on the outskirts of the city in Luan de Cuyo in a camp ground where we were the sole campers (so nice the schools are back in!). 

The next morning we headed in to Mendoza which is a pretty big city and looked for the Suzuki workshop we had looked up online. Well, when we turned up at the supposed address it was not there. Ok, Plan B. We had looked up mechanics Mendoza on Horizons Unlimited and there was a recommendation of a mechanic who sounded good and we headed to his workshop instead which luckily was actually there. The guy had a look at the bike while we explained to him what the problem was and he said he could fix it but not until later that afternoon as it was now siesta time! No problem for us, we found ourselves a campground and returned that afternoon. According to the rules of Argentine time, the mechanic got there an hour late, which is relatively good for Argentine standards. After a lot of tinkering, two hours later my bike had a new spring and we were out of there. On the way back to the campground we stop at a petrol station to fuel up for the next day, only to find out that Mark’s bike won’t start. Literally 5 mins after we have left the workshop, what are the odds!? Turns out it is a blown fuse so we put a new fuse in, start the bike, fuse blows straight away. Ok…we try again with another fuse, same thing happens. It is now 8.30 at night, we have no more fuses and we are stuck at a petrol station. Mark asks the staff there if there is anywhere he can buy fuses. Enter Guardian Angel Numero Uno: a guy offers to take Mark to his shop to get some fuses. I watch the bikes as Mark goes off with the stranger in his car. He returns 5 mins later with a whole pack of fuses which the guy had given to him for free after opening his closed shop for just him. Turns out this guy was actually going to Australia in a couple of weeks so he was quite excited about helping out an Australian. This time the fuse worked and we rode back to the campground only slightly relieved as we suspected it could be a symptom of something more to come. 

The next day we decided to stay one more day to ride out into the countryside and see some wineries, which is what Mendoza is known for. I had great hopes to see Bono picking grapes here as supposedly he owns a vineyard in the area but much to my disappointment I didn’t. He was probably off somewhere saving the world (and honestly who am I to stop him from doing that?). We went to a nice winery where we had a tour and (the best part) tasted some wines. I had to stop myself from gargling the wine and spit it into a bucket as I so often have seen wine snobs do on TV. Instead I just swallowed and after tasting 5-6 different wines I gotta say, I had a little buzz on. To continue the buzz we continued on to a brewery, but setting off Mark’s bike decided to say stop again. Yep, another fuse blown. We went to the brewery where the same thing happened, this time while it was running. We changed the fuse and then hightailed it into Mendoza city again and straight to the mechanic. He figured out almost straight away that the fuse blew every time he turned the handlebars sharply to the right. So we looked at the wires on that side of the bike and discovered that the outer protective cable of the wire leading to the horn had been worn exposing the inner wires, so that each time the wires touched the fuse would blow. So he taped up the wires and voila problem fixed. He wouldn’t take any money from us so we bought him a couple of bottles of beer.

The next morning it was my birthday and after a breakfast of pancakes made by my lovely boyfriend, we headed out of town to find the Ruta 13 (the number should have been a warning) which was meant to be a nice alternative route via a dirt road to Uspallata. We had been told of this road by John and Alanna who we had met at the finca in San Rafael. They hadn’t taken this road themselves but had heard it was ‘amazing’. And it was. Amazingly bad. We had to ride around for about 30 mins in and around what can only be described as the slum of Mendoza, to locate this road. We found it in the end past the town rubbish dump where a tiny ‘Ruta 13’ sign pointed towards a little dirt road. We let down our tyres a bit and rode on. After 5 kms or so I turned to Mark and said; “Are you quite sure this is the right road?” By this point we had been riding in what turned out to be a dry riverbed. Didn’t seem like the kind of road that overlanders would rave about. The only other traffic was dirtbikers and a couple of 4WDs and looking towards the mountains I could only assume the road would get more challenging as we would head into the mountains. So I raise up my hand and admit that I pulled the plug. I was feeling the weight of my bike big time and Mark agreed to turn around and find another way to Uspallata. We rode through the city while I beat myself up about chickening out; we should have pushed on, kept going, where was my sense of adventure? In the end, the main road to Uspallata was stunningly beautiful so that made me feel a little better about having been such a girl earlier. When we got to Uspallata and I went into the tourist information to ask about camping, I asked about the Ruta 13 and where it came out as we hadn’t seen it meet up with the town. She handed me a map and straight away I realised – we had been on the wrong road altogether. This Ruta 13 was a pure 4WD track which the lady informed me was ‘Megamalisimo’ (if that’s even a word) which I assume means mega bad. She said it was simply not possible to do this road on bikes. Well, we did see a group of dirtbikers and quads turn up from that direction later on so that’s probably not entirely true but on a heavy loaded motorbike I think she was right, it would have been ‘mega malo’. The road we should have taken was a bit further north, but it hadn’t shown up on Google maps so we mistook the other road to be it. In the end we couldn’t have gone on it anyway as we were told the road was closed because of a landslide.

Thanks to Argentina’s affection for municipal campgrounds we had a cheap night’s sleep at $3 a head. My birthday dinner was a grease fest of fries, pizza and omelette – a selection of the only vegetarian options on the menu, but at least they had cold beer which we skulled down at Café Tibet, which is outfitted with leftover props from the ‘7 Years in Tibet’ movie. I had kind of hoped there would be a wax sculpture of Brad Pitt so at least I could say I had spent my birthday with him, but there was none of that interesting stuff there, not even photos. The props were as exciting as pillows and… lamps. Riveting.

The next day we headed toward the border with Chile which proved to be an absolutely stunning ride. The Andes range has changed dramatically from the south to the north of Argentina. Here it’s all red, barren rock and roads winding through dramatic valleys. It’s a great feeling to be riding through a landscape and be shaking your head just because it is so damn beautiful. The border post was our highest one yet at 3,800 metres (although much higher ones are yet to come) and I am happy to report that the bikes handled the thin air just fine, no problems. The border post was heaving with bikes, there must have been over 100 bikes there. It was a Sunday and this being the border between Mendoza and Santiago it is obviously very busy. It took us about an hour to clear the formalities and we descended the mountain to head towards the coast and the Pacific Ocean. Here we had a place to stay with an American woman, Lorraine, whose address we had used to get our parts shipped to Chile. She lives in a little timber shack right on the cliff looking out over the Pacific, although unfortunately the sky was one big fog the whole three days we were there. Lorraine is mad about dogs and has three of them, one being paralysed on its hind legs (an apparently quite common affliction for German Shepherds). We helped out dog walking this dog using a bicycle inner tube to half carry the dog so it can still go for walks which it seemed to enjoy. 

Unfortunately Lorraine could only host us for three days as she had deadlines for her books so we left her house to go to the coast to find a camp spot. As a stroke of luck that very morning we left, my new petrol tank which had been held in customs in Santiago for close to three weeks had finally been dispatched and sent to the post office in La Calera where we could pick it up from. We found no camping whatsoever on the coast, just flash holiday houses of the rich. So we headed inland to La Calera where we knew there was a national park that had camping, but when we got there a grumpy man at the gate who would barely raise his eyes above the newspaper he was reading, told us that the camping was closed because there was no water. Right then, we turned to go back into town, on the way there looking for bush camps of which there was zero. We ended up back in La Calera at a petrol station weighing up our options which to be honest were pretty slim as it was now late in the afternoon. Enter Guardian Angel Numero Dos: while standing at the petrol station discussing what to do a man comes walking up to us and starts asking about the bikes. After a bit of small talk I ask him if he knows of any camping in the area. He says he doesn’t, but that if we want we can stay in his house? He has two houses of which one stands empty and he would be glad to host us. Total stranger but immediately we have a good feeling about this guy. He says that he has to finish work (he’s a taxi driver) and that he will be back in a couple of hours and pick us up. Funny how things work out just as you have given up. After walking around town for a bit and eating some greasy as hell french fries (Mark, give up the habit for Christ sake!) we went back to the petrol station where Raul picked us up and took us to his second house, where he kindly said that if we didn’t think it was a nice place he could take us to a hotel. Well, of course it was nice and gratefully we accepted the keys from Raul and his invitation to come to his house for dinner the next night. We now had been given a whole house to ourselves by a stranger who had trusted us based on a chance few minute meeting at a petrol station, and we could stay there as long as we wanted to. What a lovely way to be reminded that there are some truly great people out there in the world who are looking for nothing in return, just happy to show kindness to strangers. If everyone could be like Raul, the world could truly be a great place to live. The next day we picked up the petrol tank and the other parts from the post office and paid money that we didn’t want to pay but had no choice. Then we went to the bank to change into some more dollars for Argentina, and we realised that not many gringos must come to La Calera. It was obvious that we don’t blend in very well judging by the curious (but friendly) stares of the locals. The security guard of the bank was extremely excited to get the chance to practice his English and I had a good ole chat with him and another local man helped us exchange money using his identity card as we needed one to get dollars.

That evening we got picked up by Raul in his taxi and taken to his family home to meet his wife Mariana and his two sons Felipe and Diego. My brain worked overtime trying to speak Spanish that evening as a. My Spanish is fairly shit and b. Chileans speak super fast and often an indecipherable dialect of Spanish. But we managed and they all kindly assured me that my Spanish was great. Liars.
We stayed in La Calera for 5 days and this time can be described fairly easy: lazy. We spent the time eating, sleeping, walking into town to go to the internet café, shopping and watching episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’ on our computer and catching up with Raul and his family. When after five days we decided it was time to leave or we would turn in to permanent couch potatoes, it was truly sad to say goodbye to Raul. He is one of those people where you feel you have an instant connection and trust. It’s rare, but not as rare as some people might think. There are a lot of Raul’s out there in the world, just doing their thing to make the world a little bit of a better place. So next time, when you see a stranger – reach out your hand and offer your help, your kindness will go a long way. 

The guys from Sallustro Racing who helped us out

Stuck again!

Wine tasting in Mendoza

On the Ruta 13 "road"

On the better road to Uspallata

Lots of beautiful scenery along the way

The view from our campsite in Uspallata

The beautiful road to the Chilean border

Dead bug on GoPro

Puente del Inca, this used to be an old spa and the sulfurous water has had this bizarre effect on the rock

Cerro Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western and Southern hemispheres at 6,960 m

Lots of bikes at the border to Chile

On the descent

This is what it looks like when a short person walks a paralyzed dog...

And when a tall person does. Poor dog!

Lorraine's house on the coast in Chile

Mark chilaxing on the deck

My new bad-ass black petrol tank

With Raul and family

 Saying goodbye to Raul

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