CHAPTER 1 – INTRO AND ARGENTINE CUSTOMS ESCAPE

 

4 years of daydreaming, 9 months of planning, 380 hours of bike preparation and finally the day has come to kick it all off for real. So many events and coincidences have led to me boarding this plane from Sydney bound for Buenos Aires, but it all started in Switzerland back in 2005.

Working on an IT project, I first met up with my Italian travel companion for the next 4 months – Pierpaolo Rocco. With both of us having traveled reasonably far and wide, we saw the film The Motorcycle Diaries of Che Guevara and Alberto Granado and dreamed of one day traveling through South America on 2 wheels.

Sure you hear of people who take on similar feats such as riding from London to Sydney, or all the way down to Cape Town, but in Bern we actually got to meet someone who had done it all.  Our Swiss project manager at the time, Toni Oberhofer, was happy to show us photos and give us advice gained from his adventures so we could one day take this dream and turn it into reality.

Bikes purchased soon after but with minimal preparation, we managed to snatch 10 weeks in 2007 and cover almost 16,000 km around Europe, North Africa and the Ukraine. A great trip and fantastic experience, but one that merely whetted the appetite for something a bit more challenging, a bit more testing.

Life is short and you're a long time dead – having both closed in on our mid 30's we decided in February 2008 that the time was nigh to get off our butts and do the stuff we really wanted to do. So with a commitment for being on the road in South America for Jan 01st 2009, we went about the planning, saving and preparation for the trip of a lifetime.

Over the next 9 months, 2 bikes were prepared in my Mum's garage in Sydney with off the shelf and custom made parts and accessories from all over the globe being bolted on to them.

Once prepared, to send by sea or air was the next question we had to wrangle with. Ports around the world all seem to be franchises of some global organised crime behemoth, where charges at the unloading end seem to be accrued randomly and without limit. Also the idea of leaving our beloved bikes on a leaky ship with an unshaven and whoring crew for between 30 and 60 days had about the same appeal as having your 17 year old sister wait tables at Spearmint Rhino's during her summer holidays.

In the end, the added initial expense of air freighting vs. sea freight was outweighed by the benefit of a certain arrival date and minimal customs interference and surprise charges.

With November gone, our continued attempts to get clarity on the inbound customs procedure in Argentina unveiled a bombshell. Our contact we had been using in Buenos Aires suddenly advised us that having 2 bikes in my name was sure to cause problems at the airport customs – their advice was to send them by sea where their port contacts were more “pragmatic”. However we had already missed the window of sending them by sea – our only option was to send them by air and hope that a cocktail of diplomacy and  judiciously secreted $100 bills would resolve any documentation issues that may arise.

So on December 22nd, the 2 bikes were taken down to an exporter in Sydney, where my brother Toby and I crated them up and left them for Aerolineas Argentinas to shift them 11,744 km to Buenos Aires Argentina on January 3rd 2009.

Would we be able to get them both out at the other end? Nothing was for sure, and many a restless night would be had until the bikes were free and rolling on Argentine roads.

 

Monday Dec 29th

QF017 from SYD to EZE (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

 

Farewell to fat cats, manic dogs, Australian test cricket glory, Tim Tams, Vegemite, brothers, uncles, grandma and mum. Watching South African tail enders notch up last wicket century stands at the MCG is surely an omen to get out of Australia and avoid what can only be a miserable cricketing summer. Take me to Argentina, away from this torture and into a world of adventure, discovery and language misunderstandings.

The best laid plans often fail, and such was the case with my nascent Spanish. 1 month of intended lessons had been hijacked by work, home and trip preparation tasks, thus I am thrust onto flight QF017 with the dialog of the Bumblebee Guy in The Simpsons and Bono's arithmetically challenged “Uno, Dos, Tres, Quatorce” as my foundations in this foreign language.

But the gods are smiling on me, and a groveling letter to QANTAS to retain my Gold membership - gained largely by long distant years of pampered business travel - have paid off and I am upgraded gratis to premium cattle – the one where they keep the feed bins full  and muck out the cabin every week. Hurrah! Things are off to a good start.

13 hours of the usual nutritional and audiovisual stodge, and its touchdown in BA. The last 2 hours of the flight are amazing though – crossing over the Andes and up Patagonia, across vast expanses of what appears to be the surface of Mars. There is so much good stuff out there to be had, it will be hard to not feel like a couped up battery hen in the city  hostel where  we are staying for the first week. Waiting, waiting for our beloved bikes to arrive.

Zip through customs, 90 day tourist visa stamped in my passport in a matter of seconds and out through the gates to where Pierpaolo is waiting. He has been the advance guard here, with 3 prior weeks of learning Spanish during the day and tango lessons in the evening.

Being Italian he has taken to the language like a natural, and despite a checkered career of salsa dancing and the 2 step cervesa shuffle, his teacher assures him that he has a natural talent for El Tango. Professional salesmanship not withstanding, this artillery of skills sees sure for me to be playing the mute wingman role for the rest of the journey throughout Latin America.

Throw down my bags at the hostel and its straight into action. This is the 2nd last day before the country shuts down over the New Year, so we attempt to get as much of the logistics organised as possible. With some previous research by Pierpaolo and surprising ease, we manage to obtain the required bike insurance with truly alien expedience. In the New Year we can return to the office and for a paltry 30 pesos (6 EUR), collect a second document that will cover us for the MERCOSUR countries as well (Brasil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru).

In the event of ever having to use it, the insurance itself has the approximate worth of a Labour election manifesto or the total shareholding of Chrysler Corporation. Inshallah, we never have to discover what we already know. Its real value is that we need it to clear the bikes from Argentine customs, and that by covering ourselves for the MERCOSUR countries we have yet another piece of spangly stamped paper to bamboozle border controls with and out document them to the point of capitulation.

12 time zones today and by 8PM I am fading fast. A quick pizza and a local Quilmes beer on Avenida Santa Fe, made remarkable only by a Team Americaesque vomit scene performed by a patron on the table next to us (the food was actually OK) and it's off to slumberland.

 

Tuesday Dec 30th

Buenos Aires, Argentina

 

It's hard to miss sleeping in a hostel bed after a year of your own double mattress, but  aided by beer and intercontinental travel the bunk is rendered bearable. No time for slouching today, its off to pickup our insurance papers and go and talk strategy with the guys from Dakar Motos about how we can go about getting our bikes out of customs on our D-Day, January 5th.

At the Dakar Workshop, there is an array of interesting characters. As we walk in, 2  scruffy Canadians ride in on shagged out KLR 650's having spent the last 3 months riding down from Calgary. Talk naturally turns to the journey, and we are buoyed with confidence by their story...the roads are good, scenery amazing, South American border crossings are fine, and on similar machines to ours the altitude has not proven a massive problem to them. Yes they will run like Asthmatic gas pigs on the mountain passes, but with no modifications or carb re jetting they will make it to the top and down again. This is reassuring to hear.

A big BMW with Queensland plates is being worked on by the boss, Javier, so there is time to chat with its owner while its being fettled. Middle aged Aussie chap, spent the last 4 years traveling the world on his bike, now about to go down to Tierra del Fuego then back up to BA and home. Central America from all reports is a complete pain in the butt for very little reward it seems. Typical border crossings will take half a day and some UN negotiation, so any future decision to bypass this compressed intestinal isthmus of aggravation are well founded. South America in comparison is a joy.

Having been through Central America previously, it always amused me that at the end of Panama was a city called Colon. If ever there was an anatomically appropriate name to this end point of Central America, it has duly been given.

Javier then twigs that we are the guys that have been sending him emails for the last 8 months and we get chatting. He explains the reason why things at the airport are now so difficult.

Years ago there were 4 guys working on bike imports at the airport; 1 boss with 3 administrative lads, one of which was a complete ass. The boss was old and pragmatic – with minimal fuss and only the bare minimum of fiscal lubrication, it was easy enough to clear the travelers' bikes that arrived from all over the globe. Seňor Complete Ass would be sure to interfere and make things difficult at any opportunity, but relations with the boss were good enough to silence the lone voice of bureaucratic dissent and unrequited regulatory interpretation.

Seasons change and time continues its inevitable march. In alignment with most Western corporate promotional schemes, pragmatic boss man retired with his gold watch and pension a few months ago, and of the 3 administrative lads, Senor Complete Ass got the call to show his management prowess. Hence the sudden warning on shipping bikes and not air freighting them as a Complete Ass is now in charge of the whole Air Import show in BA.

Now at least we understood the state of play in the customs game. It seems like no bike had ever been permanently impounded or sent back from whence it came. It all was a delicate game of knowing who, when, and how much to give.

In this respect, I view Argentine customs bribing as a traditional art form and an integral part of the culture, something held by locals with the same regard and respect as the Japanese have for their traditional Tea Ceremony.

Going in and waving around dollar bills in the customs office would be like your geisha serving you with milk and two and an open pack of chocolate digestives. No no no, that simply won't do! Firstly an auspicious number must be decided upon. In Japanese culture, this is one likely to contain or be divisible by 7. In Argentine customs, it is likely one to be ending in lots of 0's and usually followed by the pagan symbol “USD”. Ideally the number will obey the following law:

 

B = (x + n√x ) / ώ-1t

 

Where B = Total Bribe

x = boss mans share

n = number of people involved in operation

ώ = random aggravation constant

t = time spent in building.

 

Enough of the paperwork headache, in the afternoon we shoot off to La Boca, home of the legendary Boca Juniors football team and the heart of the city's tango heritage. This part of town owes its beginnings to migrants from Genoa in Italy, and its colourful ramshackle buildings and history infused buildings create an atmosphere that is a photographer's dream. The tango theme is played out to maximum effect however, with Mctango clubs on every corner reeling in twin left shoed punters to dance with the in house maestros.

Come evening and its time for meeting up with some of Pierpaolos' friends from his language course, and an old flatmate of mine from Brighton (Sarah) who has managed to blag 3 months of her PhD working in universities around South America. Drinks in the square at Palermo Soho and then off for one of the legendary Argentine steaks washed down with a local Malbec. Tough assignment but someone had to take it on.

So is Buenos Aires the “Paris of Latin America” as so many guidebooks and Discovery Channel wannabes make it out to be? Well yes and no. Yay for the tree lined wide boulevards studded with impressive 19th Century Architecture, and a tip of the hat for even attempting to cram the pavements with as much uncollected dog turd as Europe's most romantic city - yes, humans cannot walk on the grass, but dogs may defecate where the urge presents itself! However Pierpaolo comment that it feels more like a cross between Milan and Napoli in the centre feels closer to the truth.

All of the European comparisons are a bit thin however. At best there is a veneer of European culture and lifestyle here... look around the edges and you can see the facade. One can't but help think that there are a hell of a lot of people in this city earning less than 350 EUR / month, and I bet to them this place feels another world away from the sensibilities and standards of Brussels.

But at least the dogs have it sweet.

 

Wednesday Dec 31st  - Thursday Jan 01st

Buenos Aires, Argentina

 

Happy New Asshole!

What a difference a letter can make. Wish upon your friends and family una Feliz Aňo Nuevo (Happy New Year), and wish upon your enemies a Feliz Ano Nuevo (Happy New Asshole). Try not to get this point confused...

A typical day of medialunas (breakfast pastries), faffing around and copying documents for bike importation and a slow lead in to what will be a fun night.

Tonight it's round to our friend Mim's in Palermo, with Arturo, Richard, Ali and Astrid from the language school. Mim's an Aussie, but decided 3 months studying Spanish was a lot more benefical for her constitution than hearing the perpetual bitching and self assertion of Sydney's Eastern Suburbs veterinary clientèle. She is staying at Christophes, a vagrant Frenchman with a full quiver of languages and experiences obtained from living in all parts of the world.

Empanadas, beer, champagne and concoctions of unidentified top shelf spirits make their way into the system prior to us climbing up to the building's rooftop to watch the apartment dwellers of Buenos Aires either set fire to themselves or launch colourful ballistics at planes above and pedestrians below. The joyful spectacle that results from the uncontrolled sale of festive explosives really is hard to match.

Fiesta is the name of the game so at 2AM (nothing opens anywhere in BA till this magic hour) it's off to a big party held in a hall, equipped with Pierpaolo's magic dancing shoes. They must be duds, as they failed to Travoltise this mortal frame but much fun and boogying was had by all. Much fun, boogying and not much urinating to be exact. 1000 people in a club and 2 toilets... you can imagine this equation getting ugly at 4:30 AM.

Mandatory hangover and seedy day thereafter, made bearable by the fact that Pierpaolo, as if controlled by a higher force, sleep walked to the hostel breakfast room at 9:59 AM and made off with our daily bread (medialunas). On a day where every food outlet in town is closed, these sweet tasty pastries rapidly acquire the status of Homer Simpson's donuts.

Aspirations for the day amount to burning time seeing a movie, so the incendiary device used is Keanu Reeves in The Day The Earth Stood Still. The Earth presumably being a metaphor for the career trajectory of all the actors involved in this criminal waste of celluloid.

Reeves (The Matrix I, II, III, Jonny Mnemonic etc.) has a real chance to display his thespian versatility in this outing, playing a (surprise!) disengaged monosyllabic homme  de futur with paranormal abilities, dressed in slim fitting black Armani. 

A truly woeful remake of the 1951 original, with some single-parent-cute-dreadlocked-kid   romcom twaddle thrown in just to make sure all demographic bases are covered. A subjective topic, but when we talk finest hours of actors, I think Michael Douglas – Wall Street, Kevin Spacey – The Usual Suspects, Sharon Stone – Casino. With Mr. Reeves I feel  it's hard to proffer anything beyond Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

The bad news is that it's 2009 and the world is in financial meltdown, and nobody, most of all film studios, don't want to take risks. If this turkey covers its costs at the box office, expect a sequel to the rehash of the original.

 

Friday Jan 02nd

Buenos Aires, Argentina

 

Well you learn something new every day. Pierpaolo went off to DHL today to send some excess stuff home – books from his language course, a pair of shoes and a Lonely Planet. And he almost managed to send it all!

It was the Lonely Planet that didn't make the cut, but for the strangest reason. Seemingly you can send just about anything you want by mail from Argentina... cocaine, Exocet missiles etc. etc. However the Lonely Planet was restricted by the company staff as it contained, mon dieu, maps of Argentina!

Yes, sending maps of Argentina out of the country is illegal. It's a miracle then that my plane landed in the right city. Perhaps the pilot had connections with someone high up, or obtained a dodgy world map (now complete with Argentina!) from a vendor on Khao Sanh Road?

Alarmingly, there is evidence that this phenomenon of contraband maps has spread and become a global pandemic. Today we went and saw over 500 vehicles lining up to take part in the Dakar Rally. Shit, these guys must be really lost. Last time I checked my map (mental note – check authenticity of article), Dakar was a city on the Western coast of Senegal, i.e Africa. 500 smart asses with all their sophisticated GPS navigation systems don't look so smart now eh?!

Anyway, as all 500 competitors simultaneously found themselves at the wrong destination, they decided to hold an event anyway. Confusingly this event will also be called the Rally Dakar despite taking place on another continent. I guess the organisers must have had all the trophy's pre-engraved with the name of the original event and it was too late to order new ones.

These kinds of events bring out the 12 year old boy in everyone. Today is a gala lap of the city - some automotive foreplay before the big ring-a-ding event kicks off tomorrow. Locals have lined the streets 5 deep, and are egging all the drivers and riders on. Big cheers for the bikers who give it the gas and do the 1 wheel salute down the main drag and through the traffic lights, even from the local constabulary! Ahhh, there are some things about Latin America you just gotta love.

 

Saturday Jan 03rd

Buenos Aires, Argentina

 

Lesson 1 in Privatising your city's transport infrasturcture – Don't.

5 baking days in a city and we are both in need of some beach time and a bit of swimming, so today we set out to the riverside outskirts of the city.

40 minute train ride from downtown to link station – 30 pence return. 6 minute train ride from link station on the newly privatised Tren de la Costa – 10 pounds return. Have I gone mad, or are public transport patrons getting fleeced in every corner of the globe now?

Having come from Australia the “beaches” are a total disappointment. What is left to the public is a bit of a rubbish tip, with brown river water ensuring that togs stay firmly in backpack. The restaurants and bars are OK though, so we grab lunch and a beer in a nice colonial style place with a sprawling front lawn. In the carpark, the classic Chevys of wealthy patrons have been let off their garage leashes and are also enjoying the top down weather.

On a sour note we realise that the mutual kitty for the trip has been infiltrated by a dodgy 100 Peso ($35USD) note, a result of my inexperienced money changing in the first few days. Apparently the country is rife with these, and every shop holds notes up to a UV light to scan for fakes. Our attempts to fob it off at bars and restaurants has proven fruitless – the quest to offload our one could be an ongoing one! Hard in that it will involve finding someone dumber than me, so our hopes of success are held suitably low. We may be left holding an expensive souvenir of the trip!

 

Sunday Jan 04th

Buenos Aires, Argentina

 

After the disappointment of yesterday's beach excursion, my expectations for today's river trip are set suitably low. By pleasant surprise, our trip from Tigre turns out to be the best thing we have done so far in Buenos Aires.

Meeting up with Pierpaolo's friend Giulio, his wife Mercedes and their 2 kids Micaela and Matias, we jump on a ferry boat from Tigre and wind our way through the delta, which is what I imagine posh bits of Florida and Louisiana might be like if such things exist. Half the city seems to be out playing on boats today, and the river provides a lush green walled playground for them to do just that.

Lunch at a riverside cafe and a 2 hour walk through the jungle and this has been a revelation. So close to the city, this place is a great spot to get away from it all. Holiday houses are a dime a dozen and available for rent anytime of the year. It's reminiscent of all the places you used to go as kids for holidays - before urban sprawl and baby booming lifestylers made them all unaffordable and inaccessible to the many.

Giulio's father in law, Vicente, comes round for dinner that night, and as Pierpaolo pre-empted, he is a fascinating man to talk to. As a geologist he has travelled the length and breadth of Argentina and the world, so he is a wonderful sounding board for advice on where we might go on our own bike trip.. Talking about Tierra del Fuego, he recounts that the 2 times  in his life that he had to go to Antartica, Argentina entered into a war while he was down there.

His first Antartic visit was in 1978, which coincided with the Argentine vs Chile Beagle Conflict  - a serious scrap over some piddly islands in a slushy part of the water down south.

The second visit in 1982 pre-emanated the Falklands War with Britain. Oh no! In Basil Fawlty style, don't mention the war! Having grown up in the UK at time of the Falklands, my memories are of newspapers with 60 point font page headlines and news footage of big ships going down, but I never really delved deeper to find out what it was all about. Surprisingly, most Argentines I met are not overly fussed by the whole ordeal.

Owing to their remote southern latitude and being surrounded by some of the fiercest seas in the world, I consider these cold windswept islands the Old Kent Road of the Geopolitical monopoly board. However trying to take them from under Maggie Thatcher's nose was like taking a chewed up tennis ball from a Bull Mastiff with ADD. The whole war was seemingly  staged as a way to bolster public opinion of a military dictatorship in crisis... backfire  spectaculo for General Leopoldo Galtieri indeed.

In terms of career limiting moves, probably on a par with Andrew Ridgeley's to quit WHAM! Or Hitler's foray into Russian Real Estate.

Argentina has its revenge tonight though – this half English scribe gets a battering from the  local mosquito population whilst slumbering in the guest bed.

 

Monday Jan 05th

Buenos Aires, Argentina

 

Getting the bikes out of Argentine Customs has been like our own Operation Neptune – the Allied landings on the Dardenelles. Months of strategy, planning and communication with higher powers, and today it all comes to a head....allegedly.

Things come unstuck at the first hurdle when we have no contact from our logistics contact in BA regarding the arrival of the crates. A quick phonecall to the office and it is revealed that the crates have not been registered at the airport, despite arriving 2 days prior...hmmm, this is not sounding good.

Emails and a phonecall back to our export company in Sydney, and with time delays we find out that the bikes have not even left Australia! Oh dear, this is a nightmare. Aerolineas Argentinas have refused to take the bikes on the scheduled flight as they have classified them as “dangerous goods”, despite all required documentation being supplied to state that they had been professionally drained of fuel and batteries disconnected prior them being crated up. The bikes have been sitting in their loading docks in Sydney with no contact made to anyone on their last minute decision not to carry the bikes on the scheduled flight. Arrrggghhhhhh!

While our guys in Sydney are trying to arrange a last minute booking on the next available QANTAS flight, Pierpaolo and I go collect more spangly insurance documentation that will allow us to ride in the MERCOSUR countries.

Tomorrow is January 6th, the day when in Christian religion, the 3 Kings that visited Jesus return home on their camels. This is traditionally a big day in Argentina, so Matias and Micaela leave some grass and water out for the royal camels in the hope that their riders will leave them a final present or two. King Giulio and Queen Mercedes hurriedly wrap some toys after a superb asado (barbecue) and we all hit the hay after a tiring day.

 

 

Tuesday Jan 06th

Buenos Aires, Argentina

 

Confirmation from Australia that a slot has been booked with QANTAS for tomorrow's flight – just have to fill in a day or two in Buenos Aires before we collect our booty.

La Recoleta Cemetery is a must see in Buenos Aires – a very posh suburb for dead people, with a wide mixture of residents and architecture styles evident. Argentina's favourite daughter Eva Peron rests here, but surprisingly her tomb is understated elegance compared to some of the others. The most opulent of final homes is that of a local insurance company manager who passed away in the 1950's. This I think tells you everything you need to know about the insurance industry then and now.

We contact our local logistics guy who is not exactly filling us with confidence on our chances of clearing customs with the bikes when they arrive. It boggles me how something so seemingly simple can be so complicated, but with 4 months in Latin America ahead of me I need to get used to this concept.

Big storm tonight in town after a baking hot day... is this the tempest manifesting itself? Back to the hostel and a quick check of the emails reveals so. Our bikes were held in the  Aerolineas Argentinas export docks, and could not clear their customs in time to make the Wednesday flight... we now have to wait until Saturday for them to leave Australia, which means a Monday collection at best in BUE. D'oh! This is getting tragic. I kind of like this city, but more than 5 days in these circumstances is pure torture.

Pierpaolo and I decide to wake up first thing tomorrow and book tickets to Iguazu falls, as this will be one place we will not get to visit if and when we get the bikes. If you get thrown lemons, you may as well make lemonade.

 

Wednesday Jan 07th- Sunday Jan 11th

Iguazu, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay

 

What a pair of turncoats! After billing ourselves as adventure travelers, here we are down at the closest travel agent booking ourselves a hermetically sealed package tour with all the uncertainties and impurities removed. Oh well, it's kind of a justified decision as we just want to get the hell out of town. And besides, we face 4 months of living day by day later on.

Land at Iguazu airport and the first thing we encounter is some poor schlep decked out as a mascot playing card, welcoming us to the local casino in 36 degrees. I can think of better  jobs, but we goof around and take some truly tacky photos with him as the centrepiece.

Our 3 star hotel is proof that the Argentine rating system kicks off at this level, but it does have a pool. 2 Coronas later and its just gone 5 star.

Next day we are off to the Argentine side of the falls, where as foreign tourists we are stiffed 60 Pesos each for entering the park. There is a habit throughout Argentina of charging foreigners treble of what nationals pay for entrance to these attractions. Readers, you will be pleased to know that in our quest of equality for all, the dodgy 100 Peso note is now property of the Argentine government.

I fear of underselling the Falls, so sufffice to say they are spectacular and well worth seeing once in your life. The local tourism authority is on a drive at the moment to have them recognised as one of the seven wonders of the world, and if there was ever going to be a punch up between Niagara and Iguaza for a spot in the top 7, then Iguazu wins by TKO in the first round.

Into the town of Iguazu that night and it's a very relaxed and enjoyable evening following the usual routine – caiparinhas, lomo steaks and then a helado nightcap. Amongst friends I have a well earned reputation for hunting down the best ice cream within 10 minutes of landing in a place, and tonight is no different. Giggles had by all when we pass a travel agency called “Turismo Dick”.

The next day it's off to the Brazilian side of the falls. A real pain in the butt with the customs and queuing at the park entrance, but for a different perspective on what we saw yesterday it is worth the effort. However the package tour is filled with half a day of stuff we could do without – the tour of the world's biggest dam and Itaipu city. Like schoolkids we find a need to make light of the dull lessons, so a “crap tats” competition is started for the trip.

The competition is inspired by a pair of Italian tourists in our group. One of them is wearing some very amateur artwork on his arm depicting a tango dancer, minus any sense of proportion or perspective. What a glorious souvenir of your visit to Argentina, well done son!

But he has some stiff competition by a local at the falls. All Argentines hold Diego Maradona in their hearts as a kind of footballing Pope, and given his freakish natural talent and results on the field perhaps there is some justification in this. However like Elvis, Maradona comes in 2 variations – the young and gifted wunderkid and the fat, cocaine fueled couch turd he would later become. If you are going to get a tattoo of the man surely  they only come in 1 of these variations but No! Local boy has Version 2.0 emblazoned on his back.

Debate rages between Pierpaolo and me about which of the crap tats should be on pole position, Pierpaolo arguing in favor of the tango dancer because there is doubt whether the Maradona tattoo was intended as Version 2.0 or whether it was Version 1.0 on the original canvas but perhaps it is the canvas itself that has become bloated and deformed with age. It's too close to call at this stage, so the competition remains open.

The 3 stars of the Hotel Carmen are a little tarnished today, with the swimming pool starting to turn a shade of plutonium green. So it's over the road to the youth hostel which is like Club Tropicana in comparison. The irony of staying in a starred hotel and sneaking into a hostel is not lost on us, but the Iguazu hostel is something else.

Of all the technicolour parrots and other exotic birdlife in this jungle environment, nightime reveals that the architects of the Hotel Carmen cunningly conspired to build the world's greatest pigeon sanctuary. Homely nooks have been engineered between all exterior points on the outside of the building, with the walls made super thin so that residents can enjoy 24/7 the endless fornicating and rituals of these airborne vermin. At 4AM a shotgun would have been a real treat.

Saturday and Sunday have nothing planned, so its back over to the hostel for days of drinking beer by the pool and soaking some sun. Mim and Astrid from Buenos Aires show up on the Sunday, so a quick chance to say hello before we venture off back to the big smoke. Good news comes from Australia in that the bikes have been confirmed as having left Sydney, so on Monday we can start the process of getting them out of customs. At last some progress.

One annoying habit of some local waiters in the touristic establishments such as airports is the practice of serving you an overpriced beer or a coffee and presenting the receipt saying “service is not included”. We tip with dinners, and if the service is good then we leave the odd peso or two for the cafe waiters. But when the concept of a mandatory tip is thrust upon us, there is some perverse pleasure in handing the pushy ones the exact money and saying to yourself “tip is not included”. It's a case of ask and thou shalt not receive.

 

Monday Jan 12th

 

START: 1157 km

FROM: Benos Aires Airport Customs

TO: San Andres, Buenos Aires

FINISH: 1194 km

 

Today is D-Day. If we can get the bikes out of customs it will be a major result, but we are braced for disappointment and difficulty at every step. How much to bribe....will having 1 owner of 2 bikes give us the forecast problems... we just don't know until we get there.

Pierpaolo's friend Giulio is accompanying us, and in the absence of a babysitter being available Matias and Micaela squeeze in the car with us to joining us for a merry day of bureaucracy and frustration. Should be interesting!

Initial telephone call to customs tells us that the bikes have been registered and landed, and for the princely sum of 548 Pesos we can clear them and do as we so desire. Could it really be that easy?

To cut a long story short, from 11 AM to 6 PM we spend the day ping ponging between 4 offices at the airport. It is a seemingly endless paper trail, with documents having to be collected, signed, stamped, copied in triplicate, authorised and registered. Reminiscent of buying a train ticket in India but marginally quicker.

All our fears of being shot down by over zealous paper shufflers searching for holes in our documentation are unfounded. Without exception, everyone in the customs offices are extremely helpful and courteous, and with Giulio's Spanish, lots of smiles and a few cheap Australian boomerang keyrings thrown about the place we have the Warehouse guys bending over backwards for us to rip open our crates and help us assemble the bikes back together.

With 12 million other packages and crates to deal with that day, the forklift guys position their rig under the bikes and lift it up for 10 minutes so we can put the front wheels on. A couple of genuine 100 Peso notes flow their way and they are genuinely surprised and chuffed with the gesture. Good vibes all round and at 6 PM we walk the bikes to the gas station round the corner and start bolting all the other bits on to them and fill up the tanks (32 litres each).

The 37 km ride back to Giulio's on dull motorways is the most satisfying ride in the last 18 months. Cops pull us over on the way home, but they are more interested in talking about the bikes and pointing out a local transvestite who walks past while we are chatting. Living between Sydney and Brighton - 2 principal hubs for gays, lesbians, gender benders, cross dressers and assorted beardy weirdies - this is perhaps the most unremarkable sight I have ever seen, but in the interest of diplomacy and an expedient departure from the law I feign a level of interest and mock horror at the chunky legs popping out of the ill fitting mini skirt.

Back at Giulio's for beers, pizza and a celebration. A long day for the kids but they have managed to sufficiently annoy the officials into submission to play their part in getting our bikes on the road.

Giulio's wife Mercedes, a nurse, has a thoughtful present for Pierpaolo and I. One of the riders on the Dakar Rally this year got very lost (must be those dodgy maps again) and actually died when bitten by a snake out in the wilderness. Now every competitor in the event has to carry a vial of adrenalin, which can be used as a temporary anti venom. We are given 2 vials to carry with us as well as a vial of cortisone in case...well I don't know what for but it's nice to have some extras in the medical kit.

Tomorrow we start on our journey for real. With 3200 km between us and Ushuaia, Tierra Del Feugo, it's a long way to the bottom if you wanna rock and roll.  Long days in the saddle await, travelling through the Pampas region then on down the windswept Patagonian coast to the end of the world. It's been a long wait to get to this point but it sure feels worth it.