El Gauchito Gil

One of the first things that got my attention on the roads of Argentina was the profusion of little shrines surrounded by offerings and decorated with red flags that can be spotted in most provinces I’ve visited. They are usually under trees but not restricted to that (especially where there’s no such thing as trees).

 

A roadside shrine to the Gauchito Gil
A roadside shrine to the Gauchito Gil
There isn’t nearly as many as there are roadside wats in Thailand but there is enough to be noticed.

I knew somehow that this was not a Christian thing, there’s always been little shrines dedicated to Virgin Mary of Luján along the roads of Argentina but this felt different. Only after a while my subconscious finally made the link and I realised they were shrines dedicated to the Gauchito Gil. But who is this and why is it everywhere? The devotion to Gauchito Gil is a heathen devotion that originates in Northeastern Argentina, in the province of Corrientes, and is apparently propagated by truck drivers. He is said to work miracles.

The legend has it that the gaucho Antonio Gil, an adorer of San La Muerte (another pagan devotion), had a romance with a rich widow and that earned him the hatred of her brothers and of a police sheriff that had courted her. Seeing the danger to his life, he enlisted himself to fight in the Paraguayan war. After coming back, he was enlisted by the Autonomist Party of the province of Corrientes to fight in the provincial civil war against the Liberal Party but he defected. Defection being punishable by death, he was hanged from a tree by his foot and his throat slit. Before dying, he told his executioner that he should pray in his name for his son’s health. The executioner’s son healed miraculously and so he decided to give Gil proper burial. The red flags are the symbol of the Autonomist Party.

There is other versions of the story and more on San La Muerte in wikipedia in Spanish and in English. Some of the versions even omit the bit about San La Muerte and make him a Christian, thus trying to make him into a Catholic saint. The Catholic Church obviously wants nothing to do with it.

It’s one of those things you only notice if you are riding the roads instead of sitting inside a bus.

Roadside shrine
Roadside shrine

Photos photos photos

Have you checked the picture gallery recently? I’ve been trying to catch up with the pictures lately and I’ve uploaded 3 new albums: Thailand 1, Cambodia and Laos. Thailand 2 is nearly ready but not quite. Now there are pictures up to December 1st, 2012, back when I was entering Thailand for the second time. Check them out! There’s a lot of beautiful sunsets, strange people, crazy travellers and of course, the temples of Angkor!

 

Thailand first pass

Cambodia

Laos

Rest

Oh boy! Have I been silent for so long?

Well, I have a good excuse. Since March 26th, I’m on a break. After a gruelling 14-hour day, I arrived to my parents’ apartment in Buenos Aires and I’ve been resting ever since, gathering energies for the next part of my voyage: riding all the way to North America (voluntary vagueness here, don’t know if I’ll end in Southern Mexico or in Eastern Canada).

Meanwhile, a quick flashback. While I was in Thailand, I stopped for a few days at that awesome biker’s place called the Rider’s Corner in Chiang Mai, managed by Phil Gibbins (KTMphil, moderator at rideasia.net) and his wife Som, they offer cozy rooms, great Thai and Western food and a great place to meet other riders. One afternoon, I came back and Phil introduced me to motorcycle legend Dr. Greg W. Frazier, a man who has circled the globe on a motorcycle four times by himself and a fifth one carrying a blind woman on his bike.

He told me he was profiling motorcycle travellers for an article and he interviewed me and took some pictures the next day. Here’s the article: Dr. Frazier: Profiles of Adventure Travelers. Most of what he says about me is slightly inaccurate but having seen his handwriting while he was taking notes, I can’t blame him. Plus, it’s an interesting read. Enjoy! I’ll resume normal posting when I’m on the road again.

In Chiang Mai
In Chiang Mai

What would the king do?

In Thailand, never criticise the king or the royal family. The Lonely Planet says so and every traveller you meet agrees that it’s a bad idea to get into that subject. The Thai truly love him and it would be ill-advised to say bad things about him.

When you are in Thailand, there are pictures of him and members of his family almost everywhere you look, from the more formal ones with his royal attire to more informal ones doing day-to-day things or activities related to the place that you are visiting. They even have comic books about his life and works!

Royal comics
Royal comic book
Notice the smiley faces in the crowd behind him :).

But it goes deeper than that, in times of struggle, the Thai turn to their beloved Rama IX for counsel. It is a well-known fact that if there is a coup, the government will only be overthrown if the coup has the king’s blessing. Otherwise, it will fail.

That is all and well but what if I have more mundane problems and I want to know what would the king do? Let’s say I want to buy a camera and I’m undecided about which brand or model is the best. I may think “Gee! What camera would King Bhumibol recommend?”.

The king's advice
It’s canon-ical

My GPS takes me on adventures

It just happened. I didn’t ask to go into the jungle, yet here I am.

I recently purchased an Android application for my phone, an annoying little piece of GPS software that keeps telling me to turn around, go back to a random point on the road behind me and then to come back where I am to be on my way. Sometimes it also tells me to take a longer road but I usually disregard that sort of nonsense and follow my map and road sign.

But, on the morning (more like noon) of a sunny day some 10 days ago (was it on the 5th?), I left that great place that is the Rider’s Corner determined to do my own version of the Mae Hong Son loop. I knew it’s a famous road with 1864 curves and figured it wouldn’t hurt to keep some of the curves for later and stray a little bit on a smaller road, maybe do a bit of dirt so instead of heading directly to Pai, I turned left at Mae Rim and pointed the bike towards Samoeng.

On the road to Samoeng
On the road to Samoeng

Arrived at a random intersection, I must have been in a pretty stupid mood because instead of looking at the little arrow on the GPS that tells me which way to turn, I tried to figure it out by turning the map in my head (it never works) and of course turned the wrong way, turned around and then took a wrong road again. The only difference with my usual random riding style (a fancy name for getting lost a lot) is that this time the GPS recalculated instantly and I didn’t notice. I didn’t notice the recalculation happening and I didn’t notice it had chosen a “trail” type of road, the kind that appear in dashed lines on the map. In the beginning it seemed like an OK small Thai road but pretty soon it turned to a dirt road and I still felt it was alright because I was planning to do some dirt that day anyway. The dirt road turned to a two-rut track up until a small sort of village. Not really a village, just two houses where the people gave me strange looks. I understand them, how would you look at a stranger that comes by your house where the road ends in a monstrously huge bike (compared to their scooters it is humungous)? Would you tell him not to go there? In what language? Yes, I thought so.

After that, it all went downhill. Hum, not really downhill but it got worse and worse and worse. The two-rut track turned to a one-rut track. I guess I missed that first clue. The one rut grew fainter and fainter as I go deeper into the forest and the obstacles became more frequent. Here a tree stump that knocked my pannier and half of the newly acquired rideasia.net sticker, here a fallen tree I should go around and here and there a little mud puddle that had me scared that if my bike should slip, fall and tumble down the hill, I would never be able to bring it back on my own. It reassured me only a little that there was a fresh wheel track in the mud. It meant that once in a blue moon, someone actually used that trail and I could get help if needed. That was just unfounded hope., in all the time I spent on the road, no one came.

It looked a bit like on the following video, only worse.

I don’t know at what moment I realized that it had become too narrow to turn around but I do remember thinking a couple of times about turning around and remembering how the other times I had turned around, it had set me on a bad mood for no less than three days so I didn’t. I should have. This time I should have turned around. I dropped the bike a first time on the right side and thanks to the slope I had no trouble picking it up. To be sure, I did smash my right foot under the pannier. But I kept going.

And then I dropped the bike in that muddy track from the first video. If you go back, I’ll tell you where. In the video, you will see a tree leaning onto the road. That’s where I’d come from. I had the choice of a very steep rocky little path and a very muddy tough not so steep rut with a tree. I chose the tree and never got to the tree. I dropped the bike before, smashed the front fairings against the rock wall and trapped my pants under the pannier. The slope, the position of bike and the space I had for leverage were all wrong and for a moment there I was scared I would have to go into Bear Grylls mode for the night and sleep in the jungle while I recovered my forces to try and pick up the bike. I didn’t have nearly enough water but surely I had seen enough episodes of the series to know where to find some. Or I could just walk to the stream that my GPS showed 2km from the place.

Finally, I gathered my wits, managed to pull the bike by the front wheel into a bit of a better position and shouted S.H.A.Z.A.M. while raising my fist to the sky. I didn’t get a shiny white cape or a red costume but Hercules at least must have heard my prayer because the next thing I knew, the bike was in the upright position. So upright that if it had been the back of my seat before landing, no air hostess would have complained. Without my helmet or jacket or the luggage I had removed in order to be able to pick it up, I moved it come 200 meters ahead, checked the road, decided that I was too committed to turn around and came back for my things and did that little video.

Out of the woods
Out of the woods

After that it became much easier and very soon I was back on a sort of civilized road. A dirt track but a road after all. Someone came while I was admiring the stream where I had come out of the woods and asked me a couple of questions and tried to indicate me which way to go. He also asked me if I was travelling alone, or so I understood. He spoke only broken English and the question was “You travel no my-friend?” and some hand motion completed the meaning. I said yes, no my-friend was travelling with me and wend down to the stream to wash the sweat from my face..

I thought that would be the end of my troubles but it would have been too easy. The road was quite good with some dirt patches and some muddy patches but nothing I couldn’t handle… by day. The last 10 or 15 km I rode in the dark. And it’s always darker under the canopy of course.

Finally, I reached the main road to Pai but I was still 62km away and in no shape to continue. The first hotel of sorts I found asked for 87 euros for a night. I decided that I still had some strength left and went on to find a 20 euros room. Not my preferred price in Thailand but I really was exhausted.

Results of my little adventure:

  • My right foot hurt for more than a week and still hurts a bit when I ride. My socks smell of Tiger Balm.
  • The front of the bike looks a bit more like a road bike than the straight face out-of-the-factory a Tenere should have
  • The high-beam flick switch is blocked in the off-position
  • I tried to smash the front back into shape in Koh Samui and now I have no low-beam

Was I in a bad mood for 3 days after it? NO WAY!!! I can’t say I enjoyed every minute but now when I look back it’s all fond memories. I came out of the woods in one piece and that’s enough to make a good day.

One last little video. If you listen carefully, you can hear me talk and be happy to see people and civilization again.

Roadside meetings and new tyres

When I was leaving, a friend posted this song on my page. Whenever I think of the road, it often comes to my mind. Where I lay my head is home. Anywhere I roam.

The road is a harsh mistress I said once talking about long hours on the road but it can also give you a lot of pleasant surprises, not

Scary barge
I was amazed it didn’t crumble

only in the form of gorgeous landscapes. I entered Laos through the South from Cambodia and even before I got to the border, I ran into two bikers in disguise. At first they looked like locals, riding smallish bikes very heavy loaded but their luggage didn’t look like the things you usually see on the road (video post to come on that). It was Denis and Hanes, Dutch and Estonian who had bought their bikes in Vietnam and had come riding all the way from there. Even though I was faster, we crossed the border together and they came with me to Don Khong where we crossed the river together in some scary barges.

We stayed there 2 days, minding our own business. I reading my book, them checking for a mechanic for Hanes’ bike and after two nights I was on my way. Ahead of my I had the road to Pakse and Savannakhet where I didn’t expect to do any sightseeing. I was on the road to Vientiane where I had agreed to meet with Julien, a French biker I had met in Ulan Baatar, like 4 countries ago. He was luckier than me with his China crossing and actually crossed China from North to South. In truth, I was also feeling a bit pressed for time since now I have a date to fly out of New Zealand to Chile and have to somehow manage to get to Auckland on February 18th to catch my flight with the bike sorted out.

I didn’t feel like straining myself though so I left not too late and rode only to Pakse, a couple of hours away and checked my self into a guesthouse with wi-fi. Since it was pretty early, I wandered around town and had a late lunch of pizza. Not really good but did the job.

Chiang Mai
Unexpected meeting in Chiang Mai

After wandering around and fiddling with the internet, I decided to share the info on Vietnamese bikes I had got from the other guys with Antoine, a French guy travelling in the region I had met in Bangkok and then randomly run into in Chiang Mai who was interested in maybe buying one. I fired him an email, only to receive a quick response just before going to sleep saying “you are going to laugh but I was just thinking of you, I’m in Pakse tonight too”. Wait, what? Distance from Bangkok to Pakse: 600 km as the crow flies. Time since I had last seen him: around 3 weeks. Emails exchanged in the meantime: zero. And he was in the same town. See, I give all the details and all but these things barely seem strange anymore. We agreed on having breakfast the next day before I left.

And breakfast we had. Soon after I was on my way to Savannakhet. Another short ride and very nice. Here, checking into a guesthouse was a bit more difficult, most of the guesthouses the Lonely Planet mentions had disappeared and the first one I visited had me running away from it for no particular reason but finally I did find a cozy one with wi-fi and a garden to park the bike inside. Again, it was still day and I went for a long walk around town hunting after lunch. On a small side street not far from the Mekong and not far from my guesthouse, I saw a small group of backpackers. Among them, Timo, a Finn I had also met in Bangkok. I remember also saying to him that I was sure we would meet again because the road is just like that.

The road indeed is just like that. You will meet the same people over and over again without even asking for it. Most of the time not even in the same country. I had met these two guys in Thailand. Antoine had come straight to Laos from there, Timo had been in Vietnam in the meantime, I had been to Cambodia. I put Laos in my list of “that sort of places that are just like that”. That list has so far four countries: Georgia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and Laos.

The next day I set off for Vientiane and got there. When I was checking myself into the guesthouse, I met with Julien but that meeting was planned. He told me that the next day he was going to work on the bike at Fuark’s bike shop and when we went back to the street to look at my bike and his, we noticed that my rear tyre was completely worn. Looked like I would be taking my bike to Fuark’s too.

At Fuark's
Bike work day

The next day was Thai visa day and Buddha Park day. We also did some pictures together with the bikes. We are in Laos. In the background, the Mekong and beyond, Thailand.

Bikers
Bikers by the Mekong

To be sure, that wasn’t the end of it. In Vang Vieng, some random guy said bonjour, I had seen him in Vientiane so when I saw him again in Luang Namtha we shook hands and introduced ourselves, lest we meet again and still don’t know each other’s names. They are Michael and Sandrine and they are also travelling around the world, only by plane and bus.

First times

The first time something was stolen from my bike? Kashgar, China. Some fcuker decided he needed my AirHawk more than I needed it and took it from the bike while it was parked at the hotel.

The first time a cop clearly asked for a bribe (and got it)? Bangkok, Thailand. This bastard was standing under the bridge in Phloen Chit, where Rama I becomes Sukhumvit. He took my International Driver’s Licence and wouldn’t give it back until I gave him 300 baht (7.5 euro). That was yesterday. Today, somewhere else, another cop tried it. I put first gear and went away.

Two sad stories that blemish two great countries.

F**k the Chinese government

We have just received an email from our Chinese tour company announcing that our tour is cancelled, we can’t drive through China. This is very sad news and also a major turnoff. Our permit to transit through China in our own vehicles has been refused. We are now getting drunk with Chinggis Vodka here in Ulan Baatar while we consider the alternatives. A couple of ideas had been thrown on the table:

  • Get very good winter gear and ride to Vladivostok, then take a boat to Korea and from there somewhere else
  • Same but take a boat to Canada and forsake South East Asia
  • Ship the bike to Thailand and fly to Thailand
  • Same but backpack across China
  • Same but buy my Chinese bike, maybe I’ll finally get that Shineray 😉

Meanwhile, just a thought about abusive governments.