My Ground Truth

Psychologist | Supporter of Amazing Humans | Military-Grade Mindfulness Trainer | Carsten J. Grimm

The South American Chronicles

Notes from my solo travels by motorcycle around South America in 2010 where I circumnavigated the continent. Follow-along my journey as I clocked up 25,000kms, over 11 months, through jungles, cities, accidents, robberies, druggings and muggings, discoveries, and deep personal insights about trust and surrendering to the fortunes of the road. 



The Buenos Aires to Santiago Transition

Week two in Buenos Aires is not the same as week one in Buenos Aires. For one thing there’s the change in hostel, which while not being a change in neighbourhood is nevertheless a change in pace, allowing the nights to regain their natural duration and for me to refocus on learning Espanol. Cue in Matias my spanish tutor, a guy who was as funny as he was insightful into language acquisition. I learned that there are tutors who love it and tutors who do it, which led me to walk out on one guy 2/3 the way through the lesson when I still couldn't figure out what-the-fuck he was saying to me in his thick region-specific del Plata accent. 

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Chapter Two: The Chilean search

When you're going to expedition-motorcycle across an entire continent it's best to have a very good idea about bikes. Like what condition of servicing is your bike in, how to service it yourself, and how to carry out minor repairs for when you're lost and isolated and potentially hundreds of miles away from the nearest mechanical support. Things of that nature. Things, that at the start of this adventure, I knew nothing about.  

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Don't Fear the Detour

Pucon is a beautiful southern Chilean mountain lake town. What makes this place distinctive amongst all the other beautiful Chilean mountain lake towns is that it's dominated by the smokingly active volcano Villarica, which provides a lung-tearing 4 hour grumble-slog up to the vent at the top, and a 1 hour holler-and-hoot down courtesy of snow-ass-sliding-ice-axe-braking and scree-running-hilarity. Best day out! Worth every lactate-inducing step to get to the top to stand and hold up your ice axe channelling Hillary. There's also amazing hotpools in the town that my loose and laid back hostel owner Jose takes me to late at night under the stars and it's just a brilliant magical place away from big cities. At the vegetarian-social-consciousness-cafe !Ecole! I hear from the owner Herman that a guy was through here three weeks ago trying to sell his touring bike, which is like an aha! moment telling me that I am on the right trail after-all.

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Things you take for granted when you're not on the road #47: Your own room. And having the dorm-room to yourself for a night doesn’t even come close to scratching that itch. So when I check-in to Break Point Hostel in the wine-growing region of Mendoza with the two Canadian-kids from the overnight bus-ride and discover there is a tiny-but-solo-room off one of the dorms, do you think I snap it up? Do I what. Ah the simple luxury of being able to spread out your stuff in fearless-of-robbery-abandon.

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Looking Good on Paper

Getting out of town through a foreign city's incomprehensible one-way-grids can prove problematic when you haven't invested in a GPS and you're relying on your pre-departure map-study. Which is where I rediscover some of my old favourite lessons from being on the Royal New Zealand Air Force's pilot's course in my youth; Proper pre-sortie-planning-prevents-piss-poor-performance. Roger that! It takes me a while to get used to a bike as big as Aroha having only ridden 250s in the past. Add all the extra weight of my gear I'm just not used to it and it makes me nervous plus loaded up Aroha’s so top heavy that if while I’m stopped she leans over just a little bit too far I can’t stop both her and I from toppling over. Getting back upright again takes two or three people.

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Getting to Bolivia

With getting my paperwork sorted comes the itch to get going and to get north. Large days in the saddle push me through a string of towns on the northbound-gringo-Argentina-Bolivia-trail; Catamarca, Cafayate, and Salta. And with increasing northness comes increasing altitude and barrenness, rock desert landscapes with tenuous micro-climates and their tenuously irrigated vineyards. The going is made challenging by my too-top-heavy loading of Aroha, it’s an issue, and I’m really not happy to push into the unknown dirt-roads of Bolivia with this current set-up. I need to sort some panniers and get a rack welded-up for it all to sit lower on the bike and have a lower centre-of-gravity. I need to get myself prepared for what I know is coming. 

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On and Off the Trail

Riding into a Bolivian town is not the same thing as riding into an Argentinean town. For one, it’s a little harder to pull off the inconspicuous gringo when you are all brown-caked with road dust, riding a motorbike about 3x times the size of anything else in the town, over-loaded with gear. And looking lost.

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What You Find When Not Looking

Samaipata was a bit of an oasis of truth for travellers like me who were seeking but weren't too sure exactly what for. In the town at the time was an Austrian gestalt psychologist who ran a Tai Chi school and would take numerology readings on the side if you were really curious. The crew I was hanging with all had readings done and we would discuss and debate the findings at night after Tai Chi class over good salads and good company.

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Experiencing Epic

I'm walking along a hustling La Paz city street one day and two overlander-dudes riding KLRs are stopped in traffic. So I wander over to shoot the breeze and talk KLR mechanics and parts until the lights turn green and they’re consumed by the traffic and off once again. It’s forgotten until a few days later while getting lost on my way out of town I see these same guys on the side of the road getting chain-lube so I pull over and before you know it’s me, Paul the US Doctor and Laurent the Belgian Insurance Salesman all travelling together northbound, hooting our way round Lake Titicaca’s twisty- scenic-roads and getting-on famously. Instant motorcycle-posse just add trail-magic.

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The Real Peru

We bail out of Cuzco with grand plans to boost all the way along the next-leg but man the stop-worthy-photo-worthy-scenery is just killing any hope of making Ayacucho today so we pull into Abancay on the way instead, a rather unassuming place for a night, until we’re dragged out by 6 nursing students to a local’s nightclub where we are absolute rockstars to everyone in there it’s unbelievable, you’d think they’d never seen a hammered gringo before.

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Running The Gauntlet

To plan our next move out of Lima we hold a team planning meeting and opt to head back into and across the Andes in order to get to the jungle and catch a riverboat down the Amazon. That’s all easily enough said we’re all thinking, as we soon find ourselves pressing into hour number 5 of 8 in the saddle and riding through stinging hail and rain up puffing at 4000 meters, frozen, with still a looooooong way to go to the day’s destination.

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Back and Forth

After a few days decompressing after the accident in Mancora, I get a one hour ride back to the mechanic’s to check on Aroha’s progress clinging to the rear pillion of Paul’s bike, an absolutely nerve-racking experience white-knuckled the whole way, trying not to fall off the back with every jerky gear change. And the great news is that Aroha is actually ready to ride away, particularly good news as I won’t have to endure another lift on the back of Paul’s goddamn bike.

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Mission to Mompox

North of Bogota are beautiful colonial villages by the district-load. White-washed walls and red tiled roofs, cobblestone streets and more character than you can possibly stomach. Go on and take another photo of something gorgeous. I visit the famous Salt Cathedral in an underground-mine converted into a stirringly lit church quite remarkable in its grandeur. No ornate frescos or gilded altars here just tombs and chambers grafted into the Earth. Incredible.

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