Monday, February 21, 2011

The Quest of Unsore Butts

(Disclaimer: The following posting is rather long and may offend animal lovers. But it is fun and I took a great deal of effort documenting it, so please read.)

Q and I have managed to complete almost 40,000 kilometers on Casa – that’s our loyal motorcycle for those of you who are new to our blog. Many asked us,”Are your butts sore?” Well, it turned out both of us are quite butt-aware and were absolutely determined to keep them unsore.

The Exciting Beginning

We had three things done to our motorcycle to make the ride more comfortable while in Abu Dhabi.

First was to replace the original suspension with some Dutch custom super-duper one. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was a lot of money – as most Dutch things are.

Second was to firm up the underlying foam. We bought a cheap memory foam pillow, brought it to a local upholstery shop, and have it shaped to suit our needs. The goal was to raise the passenger seat a bit more so my vision is not just all Q’s helmet.

The last was to get ourselves a sheepskin buttpad, which commercially can cost a fortune. Now you may wonder, where does one go around find one in Abu Dhabi?! The answer was Stephan, who was an motorcycle expat living in UAE for decades, which meant he was very resourceful. Not only he patiently answered all our newbie questions, but provided us with the much-needed sheepskin. Ta-da, problem solved! Okay, the source of the sheepskin is still very mysterious but we knew better than asking questions.

Anyway, back to our butts. And we were ready for the motorcycle journey!

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The Broken Pieces

For the first seven months, the sheepskin performed wonderfully and kept our butts perfectly comfortable through some pretty tough terrain. Come to think about it, maybe the expensive suspension has something to do with it too, but what do I know.

Then the rain season started and we failed to keep the sheepskin dry. A couple of times later the sheepskin started to tear apart, and soon we could no longer keep it on the seat. Eventually I picked up the pocket knife and cut it into two pieces, still hoping to salvage it for later.

Let’s just say we are clear now that in South America, there are definitely more rainy days than dry in the rain season. We kept the pieces of sheepskin in storage bag for most of past  month.

Alternative Application

Then we came to the altiplano – 3,500+ m high planes in Bolivia. And boy, it was cold. I miscalculated with my clothes and was freezing on the back of motorcycle. I was so desperate for solution to the whole cold situation.

Should I buy some clothes? But I have plenty in storage! No.

Should I wrap a sleeping bag around me? Q said it would be too slippery.  No.

Should I stuff newspaper in my jacket? The American dude we met in Buenos Aires did it and he did it. Well, not sure if I would get enough newspaper. Another no.

My mind raced through all our belongings. Eventually it occurred to me to stuff the now-two-pieces buttpad in my jacket: bigger one in the front and smaller on the back. Wah-lah!

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I know how funny-looking my hairy chest looked. Go ahead and laugh, I don’t care, because I felt warm again, and that made heavenly difference on an eight-hour-ride through rain in high attitude. It was heavenly I tell you.

The Replacement

By now I have officially included the two-piece sheepskin as part of my outfit. So we started looking around for replacement sheepskin. After all, we are in a farming continent and the fat and furry sheep are everywhere, before in Bolivia and now in Peru.

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While driving through a small town, we spotted shops with stock piles of sheepskins. We were quick to find a very thick (and smelly) one. The shop owner also made it a point in mentioning the sheep was recently slaughtered, so it is really fresh! What a bargain, only 6 soles (~US$ 2.5)!

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Our enthusiasm quickly dimmed out as we discovered that what we bought was essentially thin and crispy rawhide with dirty fleece, which still needs to be cleaned and treated (“tanned” is the techincal word) before it becomes soft and supple leather. And tanning process is quite challenging when we are constantly on the road.

The Replacement – Take Two

By now we have a two-piece sheepskin and a rather-large and smelly sheep hide. Maybe a logical thing would be just to quit searching for a replacement and use what we have.

But then I saw a beautiful black sheepskin in a market stand. I won’t say it’s love at first sight but it was pretty close. 20 soles (~US$ 7) later, we have our third piece of sheepskin.

Next we found a leather workshop and was able to have the buttpad made out of the newly purchased sheepskin: basically cut to shape and attached with elastic straps.

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On the way back from the workshop, I stuffed the third and newest sheepskin under my jacket to protect it from the rain. Take that, plastic surgery!

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Honey, Do You Smell That?

So at the moment Q and I may have only two shirts each, we now have three sheepskins together. I guess that is a bit odd, but you can see how we got here.

One motorcycle, "two Chinese”, and three sheepskins. Anyway, if we smell funny the next time you see us, you know why.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Forty Kilometers of Dirt Road

After getting ourselves spoilt rotten in Brazil, it is only natural that we were only a little worried and anxious to return to Bolivia. The memories of tough road condition and high-altitude sickness were still too fresh to recount. Well, like it or not, we found ourselves back at Bolivia’s door step.

And we were so not ready.

First, we were told at the border that contrary to our research information, the infamous “death trains” from the border town Quijarro to Santa Cruz no longer take motorcycle cargo. “The rules recently changed.” So they used to, but they don’t any more. Fantastic. So no train break for us, off the road we went.

The road to Santa Cruz turned out to be much better than originally informed: 640 km new and empty asphalt except for only some 40 km dirt road remaining.

We had an early start from San Jose heading to Santa Cruz on our second day in Bolivia, bearing in mind that this is raining season, and we were driving through parts of Pantanal, one of world’s biggest swamp, and a most beautiful one at it.

Off to an easy start…

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Dirt road started…

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Road condition quickly deteriorated with lorries and mud…

2011-02Then there were muddy puddles. Time for Q to shine…

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And I enjoyed the pretty scenery…

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Then there were rain showers: on and off, on and off…  Quite refreshing!

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And of course herds of cows were having their parade.2011-02-08 11h03m45s DMC-TS2 P1070928

Just as the end of the dirt road drew close, tragedy striked: we hit a pothole and the impact broke off our right pannier (luggage case) frame…

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Luck had it that the closest village didn’t have any electricity, so for the next half an hour, I had a little taste of what Casa bears every day: I sat and held the hefty right pannier on my right leg while Q tried to drive and look for soldering equipment.

Unfortunately there was no photo evidence of my heroic struggle against strong wind, protecting our pannier from getting blown off. But trust me, when we finally pulled into the village, I could tell everyone thought it was impressive.

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The mechanic and Q managed to work through lunch and got the frame repaired.

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Right after a quick lunch, we were back on the road where the pigs, cows, dogs, snakes, horses and vultures were only too happy to greet us!

Never underestimate how adventurous a trip in Bolivia can be. Even if it is only 40 km of dirt road.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Fun Game of Border Crossing

Are you a bit curious what the rules are for border crossing by and with a vehicle?

As it turned out, the principle is fairly straight-forward:

Step 1: The vehicle’s Rider and Passenger go through exit country’s immigration office and get exit stamps.

Step 2: Rider unregister/export the vehicle with exit country’s custom office.

Step 3: Both the Rider and Passenger go through entry country’s immigration office and get entry stamps.

Step 4: Rider register/import the vehicle with entry country’s custom office.

Simple enough? But of course that is just the principle, the actual procedures obviously vary from country to country, and often within the same country from border to border.  Let’s not forget the actual execution of procedures would inevitably differ from day to day, officer to officer.

So just a few days ago we were reminded how something so straight-forward can be so exhausting. Here is a photo journal of our Brazil-Bolivia border crossing.

8:23 AM (Timer: 0:00) – Arriving at Brazil border. We made arrangements for this early arrival hoping for a quick exit.

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Q quickly spotted a few other overland motorcycles already beat us to it. Turned out they were a group of Brazilians.

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8:24 AM – Got shocked from the length of the line for immigration. Q said the line was three times longer previous day. Oh dear.

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Is it me or the supposedly single-file line looked a bit chaotic?

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9:08 AM (Timer: 44 minutes) Luckily the line moved reasonably fast, and we were done with the exit stamps (Step 1) and Q is onto exporting Casa (Step 2) at the Brazilian custom office. And what do you know, no line – hooray!

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9:35 AM (Timer: 1 hour 11 minutes) Just luck has it we got a Custom officer who only typed with one finger at a time. Who knew it was at least ten times slower than with both hands? In the mean while, being exempted from this step, the Brazilian motorcycles were long gone, instead some bus parked way too close for Casa’s personal space.

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9:38 AM Finally got our export paper and now to Bolivia. In this case, we were lucky that the two borders were only a few steps away from each other. We have seen some with an hour drive’s nothingness in between. Bye bye, Brazil!

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We were a little surprised to have caught up with the Brazilians. I wondered why.

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Also surprised to see that there were no lines at the Bolivian immigration.

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9:47 AM It took less than ten minutes and it was done. I honestly don’t know what accounted for the difference on both sides. Oh, and for Bolivian standard, this is a very proper immigration office. The last one we had was on Paraguay-Bolivia border and we had to go around a farm-house-like place looking for someone who could stamp our passports.

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9:57 AM It caught my attention that the money exchange “office” was set up right opposite immigration. Banks are not always available at borders, so there is a lucrative market for private business.

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10:00 AM – The Brazilian bikers finished their paperwork and got their money exchanged.

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10:12 AM Q finished his paperwork fairly smoothly, with only a few papers that needed to be copied. Minor details. I thought we were done with the border crossing.

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Hola, Bolivia!

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10:25 AM Not so fast. Q was told by the Custom officer that he had to get a “transit” pass from somewhere in town. Took us a few wrong turns to figure out the location. It turned out to be the police station.

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See the sign on the door that says “Transito"? That’s where we get our paper.

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Further down where the women stood in front of was a prison cell. I counted four people lying on its floor in a very cramp and smelly-looking space.

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Guess who else were there? It’s our Brazilian friends!

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Okay, I didn’t know exactly happened in that transito office, but I do know that the officer typed up some form for each vehicle by type writer, which by the way was almost as fast as the one-fingered computer typer earlier. Some senior police officer had to sign the forms. And we get the paper only if we pay for it first. Aha, here is the cat out of sleeve. We didn’t know if it’s corruption for sure, but we didn’t see any proof of service payment when we asked for it. Anyway, it’s only 50 Bolivianos (~5 euros), so we swallowed the funny taste and paid up.

11:23 AM Three hours later, we are finally on Bolivian road.

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So it doesn’t matter how many times we have crossed borders with Casa, every time it will always play out differently. Luckily so far we have passed all the borders and games.

Monday, February 7, 2011

You Ask, We Answer!

After eight months’ travelling, Q and I are feeling that *we* need to talk more. That means you, yes, YOU! Do you have any questions that you would like to ask us? Any topic goes: travelling, countries, ups, downs, finances, motorcycles, weather, emotions, couchsurfing, ...

Oh, and this is not us fishing for encouragement tokens. Not at all. Although they would make us pretty happy like you can’t imagine!

So talk to us, and we will talk back and maybe share some of the Q&As here!

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Q wearing enhanced sunblock thanks to highway trucks.

Enchanted by Brazil: The Food Report

“Ten days or less, we should be through Brazil”, so we thought before even entering into the country, and we couldn’t be more wrong. Three weeks later, we are still here in this amazing country.

Let’s start with food – of course, what else! Our eyes popped so wide open like you wouldn’t believe when we saw so many different veggies, spices, fish and meat choices, yes, so many that we wish we grew more eyes and stomachs!

Just like how the Brazilian official language (Portuguese) being different from the rest of South America’s (Spanish), the Brazilian cuisine has uniqueness written all of it too: deep-fried balls made with dried fish, delicious pizzas with four different toppings on one, ONE DOZEN juicy and fresh oysters for THREE DOLLARS, and don’t even get me started with those exotic fruit juices! It was the ultimate approval for our trip extension.

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Midnight Snack: Fresh oysters!

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So many choices, we are in fruit and juices heaven!

As much as beans and rice being the staple food in Brazil,  you will find plenty of different cuisines. We had juicy steaks at a churrascaria (meat grill) that made us go wow in Porto Alegre, too much homemade seafood in Florianapolis (Thanks to Claudia!), sinful-tasty home-brewed beer in Curitiba (Thanks to Luis!), Shu-100%-approved Chinese food in Sao Paolo (Thanks to Marisa!), tasty local fish in Corumba, and dined in plenty great per-kilo (N.B. pay-by-food-weight) restaurants.

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Menu from Churrastaria – the actuals look better!

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Q loving the artisanal beer!

Honestly I am not doing Brazil justice by only mentioning the food and drinks without going into the details of their flavors and textures, which made us salivate non-stop for the past few weeks – Very lame but true!

For food alone, Brazil is a country well-worth returning to over and over. Not to mention the drop-dead-gorgeous sceneries and tropically-warm people. (More on them later.)

Brazil, Brazil, Brazil. We will dream of you.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

And The Answer Is… (Warning: You Probably Will Not Like It!)

Before giving the answer to the quiz question posted earlier, I need to explain a traditional Brazilian kids’ favorite sports – "cerol”. It is a form of kite fighting, involving coating the kite lines with tiny broken glasses stuck on with glue, so they can cutting other kite lines. It was rather harmless to the kite-flyers when they wear gloves to fly the kites.

(photo for illustration only)

But you probably guessed it, cerol kites are extremely dangerous for motorcycles on the roads, with broken kite strings end up dangled in trees along the roads. After causing some serious accidents to motorcycle riders, cerol has been banned by the Brazilian government. But it is still quite popular in country side, so accidents are still reported every year. Luckily we were warned by our Couchsurfing hosts in Sao Paolo, and were told to get our very own anti-cerol device: it is mounted in the front of the motorcycle, and the hook on the top can cut off any dangerous cerol lines. So there you go, it is a string-cutting safety device.

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Now not only we feel safer travelling with our new accessory, but it will serve as a souvenir from Brazil!

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