Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A New Beginning

Despite the massive losses and the interruption of the trip of a lifetime, my return from the fangs of Death has given me the chance for a fresh start in life. With a hyperactive mind continuously tracing viable plans after the end of the expedition and the modus operandi in case of a millionaire barn find or a catastrophic interruption, it may seem as if I had been waiting for a disgrace to happen, as if this accident had been a convenient excuse to execute my next trick, as unharmed as a circus enchanter. The speed with which I have returned to a normal life may have given that particular impression to many of our readers, but let us remember you are dealing with someone who has been blessed with formidable luck but still never leaves anything to chance.

Right now I am still recovering from all the combined pains in my torso, and have opened an automotive trading company named Oliden Group, whose website you can check [here].

How do you survive this? With a mix of good fortune, German engineering and good health.

The course of events really felt like a supernatural force trying to skew my life in a predetermined direction. Certainly, I stepped into the Southern continent with a mixed sensation of frustrated tiredness –bordering on anger– and overwhelming longing for finding a home in my actions. Despite being in tip top physical shape, taking much better care of my body than I had in my days as a mechanic, I missed many things about home –in Spain and the US–: the comforting feeling of safety, as opposed to an eternal –and tiresome– state of alert, the idea of human life being worth more than that of an animal,  the notion of the common good instead of the wearing opportunism, and the Western notions of order and reason governing life and politics. It is a longing hard to put into words, into more than a suffocated grunt when one sees children ride the back of a speeding pickup truck. It is a feeling of combined everyday struggle to keep in one piece, and the powerlessness before a system so big and so wrong. One individual cannot change a stubborn culture, one that has bases so corrupt that make change impossible for the common man.

A few days after the accident I started to feel a strong claustrophobia that went beyond my aching ribcage. I had seen my bank account and had to make a decision: to continue in a new car, or to return home and start my business. Despite browsing the local classifieds for days, soon it became evident that it would be a reckless decision to continue. I had grown tired of pinching pennies along the route, of the monstrous disappointments every time an irreplaceable valuable got stolen, and the loss of something so mundane, yet so loved as Livingstone, nonetheless. These two continents, with their share of thugs, poisonous insects and reckless drivers, had taken too much from my health, my pocket, my select belongings and my sanity to keep adventuring into its dark heart without the safety of a substantial backup and rest. A week after the crash, I booked a flight home, and with the invaluable help of a junkyard man, picked up a few scattered, wet items from amongst the piles of shattered glass and bent steel.

I had forgotten the golden, dusty haze of Madrid mornings!
I sat on a wheelchair and was told to wait. My body was so weak I could not even carry my backpack without the strident knife of pain in my back. Nine hours later I found myself walking like an old man towards a water fountain, arched and hurting, but a lot wiser. Explaining everything I have learned in these last months in a single post would be silly –but something I'm sure is that as well as understanding mankind a little better, perhaps the biggest change was in my views about home. I no longer abhorred Spain. I was happy to be there, despite all the wrong, all the chaos.

The AVE (Spanish High Speed Train), the equivalent of the French TGV.
A fresh hot churro twirled in a cup of chocolate as I awaited the train. It had been years since I had ridden one. And it felt refreshing to see the flat landscapes, very much like the ones in Kansas, pass quietly by my window. Everything in that train was impregnated with a reverent quietness. I breathed, and breathed calm. The train stops and I stumble out with my luggage. My father, lanky and dressed in black as always, waits on the platform.

Returning to my birthplace to live there again is truly humbling, despite having all reasons not to be.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Great Venezuelan Adventure (III)

The arrival to Caracas started with the monstrous disappointment of the laptop being gone. The morning was pretty much spent with the complaint process, but sure enough, there was nothing that could be done at that point. However, my day was instantly brightened when I was served a big hot welcome plate of cheese fingers at the Dal Bo Hostel.

The place was so unsafe I barely dared to take any picturesque shots. You don't have to attract attention!
The Towers of Silence, named after the stillness following a monstrous plague.
The following week followed a strict schedule to meet the members of the Pur Sang Classic Car Society and other personalities of the vintage automobile world.  Every day that passed held the promise of a rarer, cooler, or more interesting car to be seen. For over a week, the parade of unexpected surprises did not end.

1932 Rolls Royce Phatom, with coachwork in Aluminum.
So this Ferrari appeared out of nowhere. Who in the world would expect?!
A perfectly running, driving Giuletta. Owner won't sell it unless he gets rid of...
...these two Mercedes, a 190SL and a 220S Cabrio. Wait seated.
Despite it being a gorgeous machine, it is far more fun to be inside than to be outside.

And then, it did.

In the last Pur Sang Society dinner I attended, I shook hands with many of the people I had met in the previous days, as a final goodbye, and recalled everyone I had met in Caracas: Master Restorer Nelson De La Rosa –a British car nut–, Alejandro Ganteaume –proud owner of a 220SE Coupe that I helped him diagnose–, Toto Osorio –brave PanAmerican warrior, in a BMW X5 nonetheless!–, Alvin Acevedo –part of a dynasty of world class carmongers-, and Alfredo Bruck –winner of Pebble Beach with one of his restorations–.
The fun, kind members of the Pur Sang Automotive Club, in a dinner in Caracas.
Not surprised by the Ferrari? How about a Maserati?
Look carefully and you will see this is a very masculine, BALLSY engine.
Just like a Disney Film at the English wheel!
Yours truly always likes to help. Here's a picture while I do some radiator work to an XK Jaguar.

On my way back, I stayed with Nestor for a few more days to make business more concrete. Just as I am a 300SL mental case, he is one for Mustangs. One of those days we attended a local car show and a secret car museum belonging to a friend…
All flavors of automobiles at this Mérida get-together!
Loads of fun at the neat workshop of this Italian mechanic
The Flower Child and the Isetta.
Tail pipes of a MGA Roadster. The "I" sticker for "Italy" is a must!
Can you guess why they call this man "Perrote" or "Big Dog"?
Perrote's Secret Museum, for my eyes only.
Despite this great experience and all the shiny metal, the problems of the country really take a toll on the population outside of the capital, and can be felt by the most oblivious of tourists. Basic goods, such as toothpaste, flour, or women’s pads, are becoming scarce and subject to fierce speculation. The new government, led by Maduro, has been shady and questionable from its very election, and has progressively tightened its grip over private capital, driving investors away and not really fomenting a culture of work or self-sufficiency. On my day out of Mérida, I almost got stuck in town due to a massive student protest demanding higher wages for teachers. There is always a tense climate of violence and distrust; in Caracas, crime has gotten out of hand to such extent, anyone you ask will tell you about some friend who was killed, hurt or robbed in some degree. Two of my valuables, my laptop and my DSLR camera, were stolen on this trip in environments that felt –or should be, in theory– perfectly safe. People get car-jacked frequently, and it is not uncommon to ask for armoring packages for your vehicle. This country, which was once as great as the cars that you have seen, is quickly becoming a failed state in a degree worse than Cuba; not because it is not rich in resources, or because its people have no talent or willingness, but because its government is plaguing all aspects of life and work with scarcity, fear, injustice and corruption. I hope one day Venezuelans will be able to assess the problem and take care of it for themselves, only then such beautiful country can be reborn from its own ashes and prosper again.
Loads of garbage plague the streets due to a strike and bad management by the local authorities.
How sad is this supermarket?
Anxiety makes you smoke Cohibas. Yes, I was that relieved!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Great Venezuelan Adventure (II)

Following San Cristobal, I took a bus to Mérida, and unsurprisingly, twice in that ride I was questioned by the authorities about my motives to visit Venezuela… because, dear reader, I might very well be a foreign spy. However, as soon as I showed my Spanish passport and spoke with the most polished, rigorous Castilian accent ever conceived, the agent’s tone got a whole lot softer. By the end of the conversation, I struck one decisive, final blow with some ornate sentence including the words “Spanish embassy”, to which the agent because quiet all of the sudden, sheepishly returning my passport and not making eye contact. The crowd in the bus welcomed me back with joyful smiles and plenty of jokes, cheering my triumphant re-entry in the vehicle. Unfortunately, not everything had a happy ending: two other passengers did not make it back, as they were lacking their ID’s.

In Mérida I met Néstor, a passionate fanatic of vintage Detroit iron, from his 1939 Ford to his ’66 Mustang, and his very special ’57 Thunderbird resto-driver. We got talking about Mustangs, and agreed to do business in the future. Two days later, he sent me off to see the next car fanatic, Ezio, in the commercial town of Valera.
Some people call this Instagram, or "vintage". I call it "having dirt on my lens".
A good tease is always better than revealing the whole thing...
My ride for the week: a 1957 Ford Thunderbird. Gas prices? Not to worry!
Gorgeous fins. Can you guess which car these belongs to?
My friend Néstor at the wheel of his babied 1966 Ford Mustang!
The trip to Valera was a mess from beginning to end. The car was a 1970’s burgundy Chevelle with a leaky carburetor and the highest index of body roll known to man. We drove through rain, fog, gravel, potholes, incipient brooks, and pretty much anything in between. Still, the poor thing made it safely, three hours behind schedule. Ezio helped me find a former luxury hotel for $6 a night, where apparently the entire water piping had collapsed. During my stay in Valera, I helped him and his friends assemble the interior of his über-cool Porsche 356 racer. Eight years of work were paying off, one weekend at a time. In Valera I tasted the typical cuajadas and the best pumpkin arepas ever –courtesy of Ezio’s wife. In Valera I also met Aurelio Ferri, a former racecar driver who, at 82, was still working as a Mercedes mechanic. Aurelio greeted me with a grumpy frown and a spirited hand gesture, and showed me his collection of W116, W124 and W126 Mercedes sitting at his shop, as we chatted on how most problems in a Mercedes end up being small, cheap fixes that make people panic. From Valera, I took a 1990’s Mercury Gran Marquis –with air conditioning, this time!– to Maracaibo, the oil capital of Venezuela, to meet Rafael Mirabal, owner of his own museum.

Not the one I rode to Valera, but you can get the general idea. This one actually wasn't half bad.

Venezuela, being such incredibly unsafe country, has more of an "indoor" car scene.
Living history, then and now. Such bad-ass!
An afernoon's worth of work, and its due reward: the car has seats now!

Following instructions over the phone, the taxi driver got me from the terminal to the empty driveway of a heavily walled home. I peeked through the fence and I saw a dusty Cadillac, so I was certainly in the right place. A few minutes later, I saw a Ford Model A in the distance, approaching quickly. Undoubtedly, it was Rafael; a man so cunning and eccentric he had legally declared his own house / restoration shop as a “transportation museum” to make neighbors shut up about the old cars in the property. We struck conversation quickly, and almost instantly we became friends. In his daily driver, the 1929 Model A, we drove to a fancy hotel by the lakeshore in the town’s most exclusive area. My wallet began to shake in fear, but as soon as I inquired at the reception desk, I found the rate for a single room at the five-star resort translated to something like twenty-four dollars. In disbelief, I carded into my room and I found what seemed to be a $150-per-night room. Something was not right. Even the croissant-and-heavy-silverware breakfast buffet seemed way too over the top... what was going on? In addition to the black-market rates for Venezuelan Bolivares to US Dollars (25 to $1, as opposed to the official rate of 6 to $1), I later found out the hotel had been seized by the government. The elevators did not work, the casino had a closing notice for illegal gambling and the carpets were heavily stained, but other than that I could not care less! I ordered a $3 meal via room service and felt like a million bucks about it… until I got food poisoning. Live fast, die young!

Just daily driving the Ford Model A... no flinching while passing cars!
Even mechanics need a playground to keep away from the wrench!
In this historical moment, Rafael was gifted a BLOCK OF WOOD!
Too darn tall for it, but an ear-to-ear grin!
In the good company of Rafael and his son, we all had a blast. We rode the Model A everywhere in Maracaibo, from the infamous “invasiones” (invaded land) to a friend’s Mustang/Camaro workshop. We had tons of pizza, and tons of fun, watching tons of very special cars and motorcycles. On the last day, we drove to the private coach terminal and we waved each other goodbye. And for some strange reason, I shared this bus with a formerly famous Venezuelan singer who was then in his late 70’s. “I was on the same stage with Carlos Gardel at one point… he rode limousines, and here I am riding the bus to Caracas”, he complained. In the meanwhile, somewhere in the shadows, under the surveillance of a broken security camera and very well aware of it, someone was stealing my notebook computer.

My computer is being stolen somewhere while I take this photo. GRRRRR!!!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Great Venezuelan Adventure (I)

The hills of Medellín sparkled like a miniature cosmos as the elevated subway blazed towards the bus terminal, past the dark silhouettes of piled-up homes where the glow of televisions turned hundreds of windows into soothing blue lanterns. A week earlier I had heard that Venezuela was home to some of the most eccentric car purchases of its time; and that the country had the highest rate of Mercedes Gullwings per capita in the planet. However, everything I could think about was the rampant crime in Caracas, the arbitrary politics ands social unrest behind the recently-appointed Chavista government, and that right then, with just a backpack on my shoulders, being a tourist in Venezuela might not have been the most brilliant idea. However, with many months still left to reach Patagonia in the summer, I knew I would regret not to visit the country while it was still politically stable.

All those windows... just imagine them at night.
That night I packed a few shirts and my toiletries, and threw myself into the night in the company of Mustafa, [a veteran Turkish backpacker][link:http://www.ibackpacktheworld.com/] who has been touring the world for the last two years. We both wanted to see the historic town of Barichara, and would eventually split ways once we crossed the border. In the meanwhile, with his navigation skills and my flawless Spanish, we would travel as cheaply as possible and add some genuine flavor to this month-long adventure.

It took twelve-hours of freezing-cold coach rides, two transfers and a vertiginous drive, over 3,500 meters high, to reach Barichara, but in the end, Mustafa and I made it to this impossibly photogenic village. Despite being mostly deserted, I quickly found out the three main industries in town were tourism, stone carving and goat farming. For that matter, and with a deep nostalgia for the taste of my homeland, I went for some goat meat empanadas, and I was NOT disappointed. The rest of the stay was spent wandering aimlessly, taking life slowly, and admiring the Andes from two of the outlooks at the border of a cliff.  In such peace, all kinds of thoughts meandered in my head, to quickly recall the reason I was not motorized at the moment: the gruesome amount of paperwork in Venezuela. I missed Livingstone, the feel of the soft steering wheel between my hands; the cool afternoon breeze whistling through the spent seals, the utter invincibility I felt behind its elegant bull-bar.
One of the gorgeous views of this little town lost in the mountains. Barichara rocks!
Look at the TEXTURE of that door. How many centuries have gone by?

It took another twelve hours to reach Cúcuta, right in the Venezuelan border. As soon as we stepped out of the coach, a hoard of touts escorted us to their money-changing tout overlord, who tried to instill fear in us to give away our currency at an insulting rate. We kept on truckin’ and ended up on a solitary bridge between the two countries. Shortly after cancelling out Colombian visas, we quickly found out it wasn’t going to be easy for Mustafa to put an entry seal his passport, so we actually walked into Venezuela and found a migration office that, after all kinds of yelling, smiling, and –perhaps– a little bit of flirting, finally got the damn thing done. We were free to go to San Cristóbal –a ride that cost us under $1.

An hour of bumpy mountain road later, our bus broke down two blocks from the central square. “Great start” –we thought–, “we must be the only two fools to visit this country right now, the way things are”. We counted out money, and found out we only had $20, on a Sunday, with all businesses closed. Surprisingly, at $7 for two beds, and less than $1 each at a supermarket, we had two meager, salty meals and a roof over our heads. The day was saved. The next day we changed some more currency and went our respective ways. I was to meet Antonio and Manolo, two certified car nuts in a deep love affair with Cadillacs and Mustangs. Antonio took me to see a friend to see his pristine Mercedes 190SL, and then pay a visit to the local Chevrolet dealer, who had another 190SL in restorable shape.

With the gas prices in Venezuela, why not daily drive this thing?
A mint 190SL at a collector's photogenic home.
...and then one that is not so mint.