Riding Argentina

On a Million a Day

Editor's note: Think you've been on some long rides? Not compared to Keith Kimber and Tania Brown, who left England planning a two-up, four-year ride around the world only to return 17 years (and more than 35 tires) later, still riding their original Honda CX500, a motorcycle that apparently does not know when to die.

Over the years we've excerpted some of their travel memoirs and published their exceptional photos of Australia and southern Africa (April 1999), and Russia (April '01). Last August we covered the Sahara Desert portion of their journey, which included a map of the world showing their full route. Grab that issue, flip it open to that mind-blowing map and follow along again. This time, our peripatetic adventurers tackle South America on a million australs--a few bucks--a day.

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaI was standing in the Buenos Aires airport lobby desperately looking for a man I'd met once, three months earlier. I remembered him being roughly 6 feet tall, slightly balding and wearing spectacles. I knew he was carrying $3000 American in cash in his pocket. I also knew he had some polarizing filters.

My filters. And, more to the point, my $3000.

I waited until every last flight disgorged every last passenger, then left the airport and rode the CX500 back to Tania, who was waiting at our camp. We had enough money to last until the end of the week; after that we'd have to start selling valuables.

While I rode, I tried to think of anything we owned that was valuable. I concluded that, besides our motorcycle, the selling of which was not an option, we had plenty of stuff that was valuable to us, but nothing of value to anyone else. Even my camera was worthless; the model-number badge had worn completely away. I also pondered the circumstances that led to trusting a complete stranger with all our money.

Not long before Tania and I traveled through Argentina the currency was called the peso. To buy anything there meant changing our dollars into pesos. But as a result of corrupt government, the peso's value plummeted so badly it took a shopping-cart full of money to buy a chicken. So the Argentineans canceled the peso and introduced a new currency, the austral. But because the corruption stayed, the austral followed in the peso's depreciating wake. Soon it took millions of australs to buy a quart of milk.

We quickly realized the last thing we wanted in our money belts was more than a couple of days' worth of australs. Exchange $15 worth on Monday and it might be worth $6 by Friday. The Argentineans, experienced survivors of hyperinflation, knew the value of dollars and hung onto them whenever they could.

We traveled very cheaply through South America and around the world. We sometimes rented rooms for the night, but in remote villages a room and a safe place for the motorcycle could be had for as little as $1. Even in big cities we found places to stay for $5. We ate in restaurants and enjoyed some pretty fine meals for $3 a pop.

Of course, lots of other stuff was free: incredible scenery, entertainment in the local bars, the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and a complete new CX500 alternator fitted while we relaxed in one of the most luxurious homes overlooking Guatemala City.

The alternator affair began with an uncomfortable night in a mosquito-infested rain forest. By morning we were looking forward to escaping the heat and bugs by riding the bike, but the CX quit running and would not start.

At that very instant a guy in a truck stopped alongside us and asked if we needed help. He offered to put the CX in the back of his pickup and take it--and us--to Guatemala City, about 150 miles away.

I was just thinking how we had to be really careful in this part of the world, where a motorcycle such as the CX might be worth 10 years' wages, when our driver began describing a meal, wine, a shower and an air-conditioned room for the night. I suddenly decided I was being far too cautious. Tania remained skeptical. If we refused to sell the CX, we certainly didn't want to be robbed of it.

The driver--a conspicuously well-connected Cuban-American--took us to a Honda dealership. Once there, we were whisked to the boardroom, given drinks and introduced to the CEO. There are Japanese motorcycles all around the world, but in South America most of them are 125cc models or less. Spare parts for bigger bikes can be very hard to come by. So it was our good luck that five CX500s, plus a complete set of spares, had just been imported into Guatemala for the president's bodyguards. We got one of their alternators.

In spite of the low cost of travel and our free presidential alternator, we eventually needed cash. If we wired money from home, the Banco de Argentina would keep our dollars and give us lots of australs instead--local currency that could not be converted back to dollars. At prevailing rates our $3000 nest egg would have been worth $190 in a month--even if we didn't spend a cent.

There was only one way we could lay our hands on U.S. dollars: We needed someone to smuggle them in.

Then we met a guy across a coffee table who said he was planning a trip to the U.K. It seemed unlikely we'd ever meet again, but with typical South American good manners he asked if he could bring anything back for us. In turn, I asked if he would mind collecting $3000 from our U.K. bank. By the time we parted company I'd added some camera filters to the request. We'd known this man for a total of one hour. This time, Tania was more than just skeptical.

We went off to ride a big loop through Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil, planning to return to Argentina in three months' time to meet our money man.

In fascist Paraguay, the crew-cut female sadist at the border confiscated our passports for three days because we had previously traveled through communist Nicaragua. Paraguay's biggest export at the time was coffee; not a bad achievement because there was not a single coffee bush in the entire country. All the coffee was stolen from Brazil. They also exported a lot of cars--also stolen from Brazil. While we were there, the Paraguayan ambassador to Brazil had his car stolen and had to formally request it be returned.

Food stalls lined Paraguay's roads, which was handy for us; sometimes we didn't even need to get off the bike. There was only one problem: The food we bought was always covered in diesel from the unregulated trucks on the same roads. Black oranges. Black apples. Black onions.

By now the CX was a very comfortable home. We had two perfectly square aluminum boxes that did double duty as a table and stools. We had a headlamp grill that doubled as a barbecue for hamburgers, and we had an indicator bulb on a wire that served as an interior light for the tent. We learned we could run this light for four hours and still get the bike started the next day. We'd become completely used to sleeping on hard ground. To enable us to get off the road in secrecy (very important, as this was our primary defense against theft), I rigged a switch that disabled the brake lights.

Once back in Argentina I passed my days waiting at the airport terminal, scanning passengers from U.K. flights, hoping to see a 6-foot, slightly balding, bespectacled smuggler. He never showed. And with each passing day the austral's value fell.

Then one day a plane arrived from Montevideo, Uruguay, and there he was. He walked straight past me. I ran after him.

The money? It was all there. Every last cent.