A Tale of Nine Motorcyclists: Salta, Argentina
Soon after Alan, Arun, Andre, Josh, Jordon and I had arrived in Salta, Ryan and Mark joined us from their jaunt through Chile. That made eight of us (but only seven bikes because Jordon’s was at the mechanic). A day later, at 3am or some crazy time like that, my brother Phil, with his arm still in a sling, arrived after taking seven buses over three days to get there from where I’d left him in Cusco.
What had drawn so many motorcycle adventurers together at one time? A little rally they call the Dakar was arriving in town on January 10th, 2014.
We’d actually arrived before the racers did, and so took advantage of the extra day to get some motorcycle maintenance done. My left fork had been leaking oil at an alarming rate since Potosi, and so I was on a mission to find new fork seals. Jordon took us to the motorcycle parts and repair street where a mechanic was re-winding the coil in Jordon’s stator by hand. This is something that would simply never happen in Canada (the stator would be replaced), but here in South America it was no problem at all.
I visited most of the motorcycle parts stores along the road, managing to ask if they had fork seals, without actually knowing the correct term in Spanish. Eventually, after being offered some pretty iffy aftermarket fork seals in the only shop that had anything close, in the last shop along the road (of course), the sweetest old man pulled out a ripped bag from 2003 with two OEM (Original Engine Manufacturer) KLR fork seals, which he sold to me for the equivalent of $9 for the pair. (OEM fork seals usually sell for $15 each).
He was very interested in my trip, and incredibly proud to be able to help me on my way.
The other guys were busy having new tires installed, oil changed, and off finding the plaza where Dollars could be exchanged for lots and lots of Pesos. I put those of the gang paying to have their oil changed to shame by changing Cricket’s myself on the sidewalk, new filter and all. I would have done the fork seals too, but I don’t have a centre stand and the mechanic who was just finishing Jordon’s bike said he’d do them both for $15. He took a look at my leaking fork and pointed out some microscopic lines in the shaft of the fork. He suggested that my problem might be worse than just needing new seals.
I gave him fresh fork oil to put in and my newly acquired seals, and left Cricket with him, telling him I’d just hope for the best.
While in Salta, I decided to interview my fellow travellers. In Cusco I’d reluctantly given up travelling with my brother, but ended up with a whole new international family to travel with. I love them all.
Interviewing them was a really interesting process. I liked hearing the similarities and differences of all these travellers, who were undertaking similar journeys, but each in their own way.
The biggest similarity? Every single one of them said that their advice to anyone considering making a trip like ours was to â€œJust DO it!â€.
Without further ado, meet the motorcyclists:
Name: Ryan Leveille
The first time I met Ryan was at the Estrellita Hostel in Cusco. Phil and I were chatting with Arun, who we’d met earlier in the chicken restaurant. Ryan had had a few drinks and was feeling a bit merry. He sat down and told us the story of his electrical woes on his 2nd generation KLR. It was easy for us to sympathize, giving all the electrical issues we’d had at the beginning of our trip. From that moment on we were good friends. He’s a stellar guy, quiet and full of surprises.
My favourite fact about Ryan? He used to build lasers.
Hometown: Montgomery, Massechusets
Bike: 2011 Kawasaki KLR650
Bike’s Name: Tina because Tina is a white trashy name, and he is treating it like shit and going to sell it at the end of the ride.
Date left: June 9, 2013
From/To: Deadhorse, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina
Planning to sell his bike in Paraguay
Occupation: Unemployed â€“ used to build lasers
Best day: Coming from Chile to Salta, 120 miles of good dirt in the middle of nowhere, and was spectacular. Turned into fun fast road. Great day.
Worst day: Breaking down in Peru on top of a mountain, nothing around, revving the bike to keep it going, couldn’t slow down. Had to stop at a sign holder for construction. Radiator burst â€“ dropped coolant all over the ground. After that the bike wouldn’t start again and he had to push it into the next town.
Other motorbike travel: This is his first trip
Advice: Just do it, but make sure you have the right bike. You want to be excited to be on your bike every day. (His bike has grown on him)
Why: Always wanted to do it.
Name: Joshua Lester
When I first met the Alaskans, Josh and Jordon, in Cusco, I immediately catagorised them as â€œloud Americansâ€. It didn’t help that they both have military backgrounds and love guns. (I’m pretty pacifist and don’t like war as a general rule.) I also couldn’t remember their names, and called them both â€œJustinâ€ for a long time. However they grew on me, and I ended up spending the most time travelling with this daring duo. They will be my friends forever more and I would do anything for either of them.
Josh is a helicopter pilot who flies rescue missions in Alaska. He got divorced last year and talks a lot about the perils of marriage. He’s got green feet tattooed on his bum because that’s what rescuers do when they make their first save. He’s sweet and resourceful, but he has a temper and you wouldn’t want to be a Bolivian gas station attendant refusing to serve him.
My favourite item that Josh has with him? His white furry hat that makes Peruvian dogs attack him.
Hometown: Ancorage, Alaska
Bike: 1997 Kawasaki KLR650
Bike’s Name: Chewy (Chewbacca from Star Wars) because she’s kinda ugly but pretty useful
Date left: August 24th, 2013
From/To: Ancorage, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina
Planning to sell bike in Puento Arenas, Chile
Occupation: Helicopter Pilot, Alaska Air National Guard (US Air Force)
Deployed to Quatar 2005 & 2007, Iraq 2009
Best day: Between Cartagena and Medellin â€“ great road, being back in the mountains after being really hot on the coast. Big mountains, twisty roads.
Worst day: Los Angeles â€“ had to get to a specific shop for Jordon, rode for 4 hours across LA. The worst city on earth. Really hot, lots of traffic. Bad drivers. Generally worst riding is in cities in traffic.
Other motorbike trips: 2006 â€“ CBR600 from New Jersey to Key West, Florida then to Anchorage
Advice: Don’t do it on a KLR650 â€“ buy a real motorcycle. Unless you really like riding offroad, then do it on a DR650. Just do it â€“ don’t plan much.
Why he’s doing the trip: Because he got divorced
Name: Mark Oetzmann
If I met Mark in Cusco, it was only in passing. He showed up in Oruro, Bolivia and immediately fit in to the gang, but also I always knew he was going to do his own thing. Very independent, and the most deep conversationalist of the group.
My favourite moment with Mark was in Salta, after he shaved his head and beard. I didn’t recognise him at all. I heard Jordon talking to him about motorcycles and introduced myself and asked if he was also riding a bike. The look of disbelief on his face was priceless. Jordon laughed until he cried (not really, he doesn’t cry), and I was pretty embarrassed.
Hometown: New Meadows, Idaho (Originally from Iowa)
Bike: 2003 Kawasaki KLR650
Bike’s Name: No name
Date left: November, 2012 to Febraury 2013 to Costa Rica
November 2013 to now â€“ Costa Rica to Salta, Argentina
From/To: St George, Utah to Alajuela, Costa Rica to Ushuaia, Argentina
Planning to sell bike in Puento Arenas
Occupation: Firefighter â€“ forest fires (wildland firefighter)
Best day: They’re all pretty good. Any time on sweet mountain curvy roads, or when you meet good people.
Worst day: Being hungover a couple days ago… Not really had any really bad days. Even when rim was broken in the middle of nowhere, you know it will work out. Maybe when you’re riding in the rain and cold. You feel over it for a bit.
Some people don’t see the distinction between travelling and a holiday. Travelling is about appreciating the good and the bad, and seeing where bad days lead you. For example there was a day on a previous trip when his tire blew, he crashed, later his clutch cable broke, but some guy made him a new one, and he had a nice time with the guy’s family.
Other motorbike trips: Five years ago rode from the US to Panama City and back. Same bike. With a friend John. Work a lot in the summer so no time for long trips.
Advice: Just go. Stop thinking about it. Just do it.
Everyone talks about what the best bike to do it on is, but it has been done on everything from scooters to Harleys. Ride what you’ve got.
Why he’d doing this trip: Previous trip to Panama â€“ because they couldn’t go to Colombia, made him want to do it. His friend had to work so couldn’t go with him so he did it solo.
Name: Jordon Matukonis
The other half of the Alaskan KLR riding duo, Jordon most replaced Phil as my brother. He teased me mercilessly, but I always knew he had my back. I trust him completely.
I think Jordon will probably end up as a politician one day. He loves talking about serious stuff, and he loves being American. Intelligent and loyal, this man could make himself successful in any situation.
My favourite thing to call Jordon? A â€œNorthern Canadianâ€. He loves it. He even refused to wear a Canadian flag pin, even though everyone else had one.
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska
Bike: 2006 Kawasaki KLR650
Bike’s Name: Frank because Josh named it (Josh tells me it’s from Danny Devito’s character in â€œIt’s Always Sunny in Philadelphiaâ€)
Date left: 24 August 2013
From/To: Anchorage, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina
Planning to sell bike in Puento Arenas
Occupation: Property Investor â€“ previously a US Marine
Was deployed in 2005 & 2008 to Iraq
Best day: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua â€“ Went fishing and caught a mahi mahi â€“ ate raw chunks of fish on the boat.
Worst day: When crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica. Felt really ill, dry heaving into helmet, looked down at arm and saw red streaks from his wrist to shoulder. It was a blood infection from a tiny cut on his wrist and he was really sick.
Also in Potosi, Bolivia when Frank broke and they had to push it a long way and then put it on a bus. There was also the day when he ran over two Peruvian kids (teenagers) on a small bike, who pulled in front of him without looking. (Both â€œkidsâ€ were fine, and actually paid Jordon for the damage to his bike, which is pretty surprising for Peru.)
Other motorbike trips: San Diego to San Francisco
Advice: Pack less. The people are really nice in every country that I’ve been to.
Why this trip?: Because Josh got divorced. In 2009 talked about it and everything came together. I was bored and Josh got divorced so the time was right.
Name: Alan O’Brien
My Australian Dad, an adventurer with a heart of gold. Alan is a true blue Aussie man, through and through. He made me laugh every day. He tells some pretty off colour jokes, and has the best stories. I’ve threatened to move in with him and his good lady Caroline, and I still may actually do that. Only Alan would go out and buy a wig, just so he could sing a Rod Stewart song at Karaoke night in the hostel.
The only motorcycling 64 year old who I’ve ever met who can more than hold his own with the 20 year olds.
My favourite story about Alan? He punched an annoying English kid in the face on the bus home from Matchu Picchu.
Hometown: Gold Coast, Australia
Bike: 2004 Suzuki 650 V-Strom
Name: Blue (Azul in Spanish) because it’s blue!
Date left: 22 September 2013
From/To: Roseville, California to somewhere in Southern Argentina (he doesn’t fancy the wind and gravel on the way to Ushuaia, so he’s not going.)
Going to sell the bike somewhere before flying home.
Best day: Riding through Colombia and Ecuador has been the best riding. The day I got my bike back after it was stolen in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I didn’t think it was lost forever, the thief wasn’t professional enough. I had contacted newspapers and radio and offered a $500 reward. It was great to get the bike back!
Worst day: In Peru when I couldn’t breath at night. I would wake up gasping for air. It was okay in the day but suffocating at night. I suppose it was altitude sickness.
Other motorbike trips: Around Australia (25,000km) in early 2000s. To Darwin and Perth.
Advice: Just do it. Don’t hesitate. Make sure you choose the right motorcycle.
Why this trip?: Because I’m an adventurer. I’ve always been travelling. When I was 22 I went up through Africa in a beach buggy. Spent four months in an open longtail canoe I built myself going up the Aussie coast. I’ve also sailed yachts for many years.
Name: Arun Nangla
Arun is the reason I met all the rest of the gang. He walked in to the chicken restaurant and invited Phil and I back to the hostel, and the rest is history.
A world traveller, and the most experienced motorcycle traveller of us all, Arun still captured my heart because he also doesn’t like riding offroad. (Although he rode the Death Road and I didn’t, so he’s braver than I am.) Arun has lived in India, London and Italy (amongst other places I’m sure) and his way of communicating with everyone despite not speaking any Spanish showed me that language simply is not a barrier.
My favourite item that Arun travels with? A bamboo clarinet. (He plays it beautifully.)
Hometown: Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India
Bike: 2005 BMW R1150 GS Adventure
Bike’s Name: Nandi â€“ The name of the bull of Lord Shiva
Date left: 31 August 2013
From/To: Arctic Circle, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina
Planning to ship bike to Madrid or Cape Town
Best day: The day I got my tattoo in Cusco. It was my first tattoo and it is related to travel
Worst day: In Nicaragua when I saw that one of the pages in my passport had been torn almost in two by a border official.
Other motorbike trips:
London to Bejing, to Tibet and then India 2007 on a KTM 990
London to Isreal on a Triumph Tiger in 2011.
Lahore Pakistan to Tibet on a Royal Enfield 500cc in 2004
Advice: Just start your trip â€“ you can learn everything on the road. It’s not difficult.
Why this trip?: Wants to be the first Indian to do the trip from Alaska to Patagonia. Indians like making money, not spending it, he’s spending it!
Special note: Arun is filming his trip to make a documentary.
Name: Andre van Leeuwen
I also met Andre in Cusco, but barely even spoke to him there. Our first real conversation was in the rain, in a shelter on the side of the road in Argentina. Andre manages to still be â€œworkingâ€ while away, with an amazing mix of paid time off and overtime. I love Andre’s Dutch sense of humour, and his practical approach to everything.
My favourite Andre moment? When we were in a shop, and Josh picked up a key that the pretty shop assistant had dropped. Andre chided him, saying â€œWhy’d you do that? I wanted to watch her pick it up!â€ The girl turned to him and said â€œI understand you, you know.â€ in perfect English. Andre didn’t miss a beat and said â€œEven so, I still wanted to watch you pick it up.â€
Hometown: Maasland, Netherlands
Bike: 2008 BMW F800GS
Name: No name
Date left: 25 August 2013
From/To: Atigan Pass, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina
Planning to ship bike back to Netherlands
Occupation: Software Engineer (Industrial)
Best day: My birthday in Cusco. Had a big dinner at the hostel with a lot of great people.
Worst day: Have there been any? In Honduras when I was driving in the clouds and the rain and I couldn’t see anything. It was dangerous at least.
Other motorbike trips: 3 weeks in Vietnam, 4 weeks in Patagonia, 4 Weeks in New Zealand, 4 weeks in Japan
Advice: Just do it.
Why this trip?: I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and it sounded fun.
There you have it, my temporary family of motorcyclists who I travelled with for a time. You’ll never met a nicer group of guys. I feel incredibly privileged to call them all friends and to have spent the time I did with them.
As I write this (January 27, 2014), I am in Southern Chile, still making my way slowly down to Ushuaia.
Josh, Jordon and Ryan arrived in Ushuaia yesterday, and Mark is very close if he’s not there already. Arun was ahead of the Alaskans and Andre is somewhere between me and Ushuaia. Alan left us in Mendoza and headed for some beach time on the Argentinian coast, with no desire to go all the way South.