We were looking for a Catacombs tour with kids in Rome, and found a gem in Walks of Italy’s “Crypts, Bones and Catacombs” tour. We were guests of Walks of Italy on this tour.
My daughter keeps a collection of artistic skulls and my son has a thing for zombies so we thought the “Crypts, Bones and Catacombs” tour offered by Walks of Italy would be the ideal thing to allow my wife and I to learn about some of Rome’s religious past without rattling the kids’ bones too much.
CAPUCHIN CRYPTS AND BONES
The tour began in the Piazza Barberino, named after one of the powerful families of Renaissance Rome, where headsets were distributed and our tour guide, Andrea, explained directly into our ears the agenda for our tour. The headsets turned out to be a nice feature because crypts and catacombs tend to be tight spaces; knowing that you would be able to hear Andrea no matter where you stood minimized jostling for position with the other tour participants.
The Capuchin crypt is in the basement of the Church of Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione, a short walk from the piazza. Prior to descending into the crypt, we spent some time in the attached museum looking at a few artifacts while Andrea covered the history of the Capuchin monks, a branch of the Franciscan order. The artistic highlight of the museum was a painting of a monk that was formerly attributed to Caravaggio, but is now believed to be a copy. Andrea is a student of art and he gave us a short biography of why Caravaggio, who was hiding out in another part of Italy after having killed a man, could not have completed the painting on the date attributed.
In the crypt on our catacombs tour with kids.
The highlight of this part of the tour, and what we had really come to see, is in the basement of the church; six crypts filled with the bones of 4,000 Capuchin monks who have died since the 16th century. The decorations fashioned by the monks from all those bones included chandeliers, skeletons dressed in Capuchin robes, bones arranged in patterns on the ceilings and walls, skulls with shoulder blades for wings, and just plain old piles of bones. This is all very interesting to see – my daughter nearly salivated at the sight of all those skulls – but after visually absorbing it, the two obvious questions are – why would they do this and what is the significance? It was critical to have Andrea there to explain the symbolism of the motifs – I won’t take away all of his thunder, but I will put a little meat on the bone for you – Christianity, the cycle of life, and rebirth.
THE CATACOMBS OF PRISCILLA
The second part of the tour required us to take a shuttle bus outside of the city walls to the Catacombs di Priscilla. The site comprises nearly 7 miles of underground tunnels, and my kids were glad we didn’t have to hike through all of them. The parts we did walk through, carved out of the soft volcanic tufa stone that provides the foundation for Rome, were well lit to highlight the thousands of shelves where bodies of early Christians were laid to rest. No bones remain because at some point the tunnels were looted, and the bones were either returned to their families to be interred on more sacred grounds (for example, in a cemetery next to a church) or sold as souvenirs. Though, Andrea did show us one femur bone that had been left behind.
What struck me from Andrea’s dialogue during this part of the tour was his contrast of Christianity as a lower cost alternative to paganism. He also drew parallels between the two from imagery in the several frescoes that have survived from the early days of the complex. It was fascinating to hear, but much deeper than either of my kids cared to delve. They were more interesting in exploring the maze of hallways – some of the corridors run off into infinite darkness. It was easy to imagine how dank, dark and scary a place this must have been when it was full of bodies, and how easy it would be for the current curator to freak everybody out by pulling the plug on the lights for 30 seconds!
There were two other interesting points for me to this leg of the tour. First, it required a journey outside the city walls. Because our accommodations were in the city center, this was our one and only foray outside the walls of the ancient city into modern Rome. It was interesting to get this perspective on the city. Second, Andrea showed us some graffiti done by U.S. soldiers who were obviously in a celebratory mood a few days after the liberation of Rome from the Nazis in 1944. We wondered if they had ever been back.
After another bus ride, we made the final stop of the tour – back in the city center at the 12th century Basilica di San Nicola in Carcere. The purpose of our visit here was, again, a visit to the underground. This time to the basement to see the original columns of the pagan temple that the church was built over. But the highlight was about fifty feet worth of an original Roman pedestrian market, with recesses where the merchant stalls would be in the walls on either side of the sidewalk. Even the kids perked at this – to realize that this was the original level where the hustle and bustle of ancient Rome took place; far removed from the bustle going on above our heads. It reminded us of what Andrea had said when introducing the tour – Rome is like a lasagna. It has many layers – and by going into its crypts and catacombs we had gotten a taste of the religious foundation on which it was built.
The Crypts, Bones & Catacombs tour cost 160 Euros and lasted about three hours – with about 30 minutes of that spent in a bus going to the different sites. It is a group tour, but due to the small spaces of the sites visited, groups are kept to a maximum of 15 persons. We never had a problem hearing Andrea through our headsets, and he added a lot of depth and history to the sites in good English and with humor. It was because of Andrea that my wife and I learned a lot. But this tour is not tailored for kids nor is it advertised as such. Our kids were more interested in the novelty of the bones and wandering in the underground spaces than listening to what the guide said, so although they liked the tour overall because it was spooky, they got bored.
There were two other children on our tour. One, a 12-year old boy, felt the same way as our kids. The other boy on the tour was 16 and a self-proclaimed history geek. He loved the tour but recognized that not every 16-year old would feel the same. If you think you have a child or children who would be interested in listening to a lot of history and interpretation of art and its meaning, you won’t be disappointed with what you see and learn on this tour. However, if you think this tour is not for you and your family, it is obvious to us from our experience that Walks of Italy is a reputable company that employs high-quality guides. You can find information about other tours offered by Walks of Italy in Rome and throughout Italy at www.walksofitaly.com.
- Walks of Italy
- From the US (toll-free): +1-888-683-8670
We took a Pompeii tour for kids and the whole family got an education. And a great time!
Pompeii – Risen from the Ash
On the morning of 24 August, 79 A.D., the residents of Pompeii rose to a sunny day and went about their daily business. The slaves opened the city gates to the port to let in carts laden with goods. The gladiators swung heavy clubs in their training complex for an upcoming event at the stadium. The bakers baked and the food stand operators prepared the days menu – lentils, barley soup, baked fish – in anticipation of the lunch crowds. The rich merchant families breakfasted on the leftovers from the previous evening’s sumptuous feast. Perhaps a young couple stole away from their chores to meet in one of the city’s many alleyways and carve their names into the wall – Julius loves Claudia – never guessing their sentiments for each other would be preserved for the world to see.
Rossana, our gregarious guide from the company “Pompeii Tours with Lello & Co.” set this dramatic scene for us under the clear blue sky of a November afternoon in passionate, engaging, and clearly understandable English. Then she described how later that morning, Mt. Vesuvius would blow its top on the unsuspecting populace – literally – catapulting molten rock tens of thousands of feet into the air and creating a tremendous cloud of rock and dust that would block out the sun. For three days, the remnants of this sudden blast would rain burning hot pumice down upon the city – suffocating people under a 20-foot deep blanket of ash and offering no chance for escape.
The evidence of how unexpected this catastrophe was can be seen in the various plaster molds the first archeologists cast of the dead – the young girl with her arms raised to shield her mouth and eyes; the baby cradled protectively in its mother’s arms; the guard dog twisted in agony, helpless to escape its chains. As compelling as these casts are as macabre – capturing flesh and blood persons in their last, terrified moments – the legacy of the eruption is that it gave an otherwise inconsequential city and its inhabitants everlasting life. Twenty feet of ash preserved the city in a type of saran wrap that protected it against the erosion of time. Thus, when Pompeii was rediscovered by archeologists in the late 1800’s, many of the everyday items, graffiti, marble works, and even bread and food was preserved. This offers a unique glimpse into Roman society that informs our views of them as a class of people that none of the ancient sites in Rome can provide.
THE CITY TOUR
Rossana explained to us the complex history of Pompeii – from Ossian rule, to Greek, to Roman – and this set the stage for our tour. She is a trained art historian with a passion for archeology and architecture that she shared with us in pointing out differences in Greek construction of the Gran Teatro as compared to Roman techniques, and in other places as we wove our way through the city. Her background in art was helpful in understanding the magnificent frescoes and other artistic flourishes that are so well preserved and decorated the wealthier homes. For example, in the Casa del Menandro, Rossana led us to the artwork that lends the house its name (it is not named after the owner) and pointed out elaborate mosaics inlaid on the floors.
Her understanding of architectural design gave life to the layout of the homes – where the families ate, slept, and partied. She also taught us Latin names for the different rooms and shrines – Pompeii and the Roman Empire at this time still practicing pagan worship. She pointed out features of the different buildings of the thriving city that helped inform what it had been up until that fateful morning – the terracotta pots at the food counters that kept foods at proper temperatures, the operation of the mill stones at a bakery, the way steam was dispersed at the public bath houses, the obsidian mirrors at the barbershop, the way sound was amplified at the theater. These were all details that we would have missed, or that we may have been able to glean after hunching over our guidebook while our kids tugged at our sleeves, which Rossana was able to relate as easily as features of her own home. That is the real benefit of the tour – Rossana’s familiarity and knowledge of the site and subject matter allowed her to direct us to the sites that would most interest our children and to have the knowledge at hand to inform and intrigue.
We didn’t actually use the ancient public urinal in Pompeii, but we had to get the pic.
Rossana also added historical tidbits that enhanced our visit. When we were in Rome, my kids heard stories about the Emperor Nero, who had a wife from Pompeii. Rossana took us to her home and dramatically said, “You are walking on the same marble floor where Nero walked two thousand years ago!” In pointing out the lead pipes that supplied water to the home, she guessed that maybe Nero went crazy from lead poisoning. Not a bad theory. She also showed us centuries-old graffiti on city streets and encouraged us to spend time looking for familiar symbols, like a ship, gladiator, or fish, to which she then gave some context. She made a point to note that the rudimentary art was done at waist level, allowing the kids to conclude that they had been scratched by children. These types of asides kept the interest of our kids, who tend to get quickly bored at the more typical “look at this and let me explain” type of group tour. Rossana deftly engaged the kids throughout our time with her, calling them by name to ask a question or point out an interesting feature.
This was a quality, worthwhile tour which we highly recommend. The tour cost was 160 Euro, which did not include the cost of entry to the site (13 Euro per adult; children under 18 free).
Pompeii is a vast complex. Wandering around on your own is a recipe for tired children who have seen too much and cranky parents who didn’t get to see what they wanted. Pompeii Tours with Lello is a Pompeii tour for kids, and they can provide context to the otherwise overwhelming site. If you have preferences, the company can tailor the tour to meet them. The first thing Rossana asked us after meeting was if there was anything that we wanted to see – thereby ensuring that we would walk away satisfied. In addition to all the cool information that Rossana shared with us, including the colloquial Italian phrase “allora ragazzi” (okay, guys), she lent direction to the time we spent at Pompeii. And this was the greatest value added. After all, we wanted our tour of Pompeii to be remembered as a fun and enjoyable family time.
Thanks to Rossana and Pompeii Tours with Lello it was a blast, and the magnets she gave as parting gifts to the kids will ensure every time we open the refrigerator, we will remember it.
We are a traveling family, but we do not travel extravagantly. We don’t do fancy resorts, will spend an hour studying local transport options from the airport to our budget hostel, rather than hopping a more expensive taxi or private shuttle, and definitely don’t do guided tours. This last habit is directed as much by our frugality as it is by our failure to ever find a guide that added much value to the historical sight we were seeing.
But after a decade of my wife and I dragging our 14-year old daughter and 12-year old son to various parts of the globe and trying to instill in them the same appreciation for differences in time and place that we have, we’ve come to know what they like – ice cream – and what they don’t – anything having to do with learning, especially learning directed by mom and dad about architecture, art, or history. So when we decided we were going to take them to Rome, we knew we had to do something different.
Rome Tours with Kids turned out to be a great solution. Our kid-oriented Colosseum tour satisfied my wife and me because it was a tour with a knowledgeable guide who spoke good English and introduced our kids to the wonder of ancient Rome in a fun and educational way. It satisfied our kids because the guide was engaging and conveyed the right amount of information to pique their interest without boring them with details and the tour lasted just long enough to keep them entertained without tiring them out. And because Rome Tours with Kids employs only guides who have passed a rigorous certification test administered by the Tourism Department of the Italian government, our guide was able to draw from a deep-based knowledge of many areas that added to what my wife and I had already learned from our own research.
Rome Tours with Kids also offers kid-friendly tours of the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, and although we arranged to be reimbursed for the cost of our tour in exchange for publishing this review, we are not biased in whole-heartedly recommending any of the tours offered by this company based on our experience with the Colosseum tour. We would have taken advantage of their expertise for another tour if we were in Rome for a longer period of time. Fortunately, we threw coins in the Trevi Fountain, so it is guaranteed we will be returning.
THE COLOSSEUM TOUR
We were scheduled to meet our guide, Francesco, at nine a.m. in front of the Colosseo metro entrance, but we showed up 30 minutes late. We were certain he would already have left since we had pre-paid the tour cost, but Francesco was there, waiting and ready to go. After friendly introductions, he led us past the lines of those “unguided souls” who were waiting to purchase tickets and through the “vomiturium:” the portals that allowed 50,000+ free Romans, foreigners, and slaves to enter the arena and find their seats in less than 15 minutes. ”They didn’t have to go through security,” Francesco quipped in explaining how quickly folks could be seated. It was just one of the ways he easily contrasted ancient Rome with real-life experiences that are familiar to our kids.
Our first stop was the upper level of the arena and a view from the balcony over the streets leading to and the piazza in front of the Colosseum. Francesco explained the significance of the nearby Constantine Arch and pointed out buildings from ancient Rome, the Renaissance and Reformation, and contemporary construction – in explaining Rome’s nickname of the Eternal City. The kids remembered that point as we strolled the streets several days later and found the ancient ruins where Julius Ceasar was stabbed to death in 44 B.C. parked next to a taxi stand.
After viewing history outside the Colosseum, we wound our way back down to the lower bowl of the ampitheater. We stood for a moment gazing with wonder at the magnitude, in both size and legend, of the structure, Francesco said, “I come here just about every day and still feel the same awe. This place does that to everyone on sight, I only add the words.” He then entertained us with stories that combined myth and fact and compared them to modern realities. For example, he pointed out the similarity of the design and capacity of the nearly 2,000 year old Colosseum to most current football stadiums and noted how the seats closest to the action tended to be occupied by the more wealthy.
The original floor of the arena was constructed of wood and is long gone but a reconstructed section gives us an idea of how it may have looked in gladiator times. Most of what is visible now is the underground labrynth of passages where animals and slaves were kept before it was their turn to take part in the games being played above their heads. The basement looks bright and somewhat inviting as a refuge now, with moss growing on the brick walls, but Francesco drew a vivid picture of the damp, dark, and desperate conditions that existed in 80 A.D. He explained how slaves worked the trap door system to bring animals and gladiators to the arena floor to surprise the audience and combatants, or as a complement to one of Rome’s foreign conquests that was being reenacted as entertainment.
In a more philosophical moment, Francesco asked us to imagine what it would be like to have your homeland conquered by the Roman army, then be marched in chains to the magnificent and opulent Rome – which you had likely never seen anything like before. You would be thrown into the dark cells under the Colosseum floor for days or weeks, and then have to listen to the roar of the bloodthirsty crowd as you waited your turn to be forced into a life or death battle. He asked us to think how many thousands of souls had left a piece of themselves behind.
The kids actually responded to this with due solemnity. But the highlight of the tour, especially for a family as competitive as ours, was a trivia contest proxied by Francesco that pitted parents against kids and required us to tally the points we scored for correct answers in Roman numerals. Hint – know your Greek and Roman gods!
We spent most of our time with Francesco in the Colosseum but also visited a few sites within the adjacent sprawl of ruins that is the Roman Forum. It was in the Forum, in front of the Curia, the seat of the Roman Senate, that the kids were awarded their prize for prevailing in the contest: a mini-replica Colosseum and gladiator helmet keychain. It was here that we parted ways with Francesco as my kids, glowing with the exhilaration of victory, placed their gladiator helmet keychains over their pinkies and drew smiling faces as if they had just prevailed in a battle to the death.
Our Colosseum tour lasted two and one-half hours and cost €200. This did not include the cost of the entry ticket that allows access to the Colosseum and to the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill complex.
We really enjoyed this tour and feel it is worth the cost. It was a high-quality tour with an engaging and knowledgeable guide. It was probably the highlight of our time in Rome. This is an introductory level tour, however. I consider myself an armchair historian and at several points during our tour we passed by informational signs or sights where I ordinarily would have stopped. I realize this was the trade-off I made for a fun and enjoyable experience for our family. The company does suggest the content of the tour is tailored to the level of the tour participants, which suggests that the tour can be as deep or shallow as your family wants. Our own guide, Francesco, was always willing to answer any questions I had about sites or things that were not part of our tour specifically, which is evidence that the engagement level of your family will dictate how the tour proceeds. As a bonus, the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine Hill entry ticket can be used on consecutive days (but not for the same attraction), which allowed me to go back the next day to Palatine Hill and linger over this amazing time in history.
The writer of this piece was hosted by the destination, which means that they did not pay for their experience. They also were not paid by the destination, which means that they are free to express their honest opinion of the experience, which they do here. We just thought you should know.
This is the end.
In the words of the somewhat famous and totally unpredictable Jim Morrison of The Doors, this is the end, my only friend, the end.
My family and I just completed a year-long overland adventure through Mexico and Central America. We left Virginia on August 1, 2015 and drove our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van – which we named Wesley – through Mexico and Central America. We’ve now landed softly at the family lake house in New York’s Catskill Mountains where we will take contemplative walks in the woods and frolic in the clear lake water before launching back at the end of the month into the hard work of being middle class Americans.
Relaxing on the dock at the lake has proved to be a soft landing before re-entering the rat race of middle class America.
I want to thank Paige Conner Totaro, the founder of www.alloverthemap.net for hosting my blog this year and for providing R and me with lots of other advice and inspiration. If reading about our adventures has infected you with the travel flu, as we hope it has, you should continue to visit Paige’s site for great tips and ideas for individual and family travel. For example, Paige’s latest post describes an amazing Yucatan vacation rental for families, to host a family reunion, or for a girlfriend getaway. It may be too fancy a place to host a drunk frat brother weekend.
I also want to thank everyone who we met on our journey who helped us, hosted us, or just said “Hi.” I don’t want to start naming names for fear of leaving somebody out, but the amazing and adventurous people that we met are the main reason why this year will be unforgettable for us. Thank you.
We only had these folks in the van for a few minutes, but I remember the conversation and we all had a few moments of fun with strangers, which seems easier to do when we are all foreigners to the place where we meet.
Finally, thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog. I know that sometimes I can go on and on with no apparent point, but I hope it was as much fun for you to read my blather as it was for me to think it up and write it.
At the outset of our trip, I attempted to interest you in what we were doing by posing three questions. Now, finally, as my last blog post of this trip, I will attempt to answer them.
Q1. Is Mexico as lawless as the media portrays?
A1. I don’t think so. We survived without anyone shooting at us, robbing us, or even frowning at us. On the contrary, Mexico was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the trip and we spent five months in various places there. It is one of the most beautiful countries – stunningly tall mountains, endless and mostly deserted beaches, outrageously delicious and affordable food – and has the most friendly people. I kid you not, even the machine gun patrols that drive around looking for trouble-makers waved at us. Don’t let the media fool you.
Q2. Does the Bright-rumped Attila still ply the skies above Central America?
A2. We didn’t see the bird in our travels through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, but we did see a mass nesting of sea turtles, hundreds of monkeys, stingrays and reef sharks, scorpions, tarantulas, dolphins, sloths, jaguars (at a zoo), and toucans.
R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.
Also, to soften the blow of missing out on the Bright-rumped Attila, we did spot its cousin the Bright-rumped Tanager one fine day while hanging out on the back porch of our workaway in Costa Rica.
Q3. Can a 1985 Volkswagen camper van handle the ups and downs of the Andes Mountains?
A3. Unfortunately, for reasons too depressing to get into again, we didn’t make it to South America so I am not able to answer this question based on an actual experience of driving through the Andes. However, based on our van Wesley’s performance through the numerous Sierra Madre ranges in Mexico, I have no doubt it could have conquered the Andes Mountains as well.
When we reached the top of one of the mountains we’d climbed, we just had to stop and pee
Okay – now that there are answers, I will pose a final question. This one was originally asked by the even more famous and less unpredictable Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin in the popular but not very rock and roll song “All of My Love.”
Q4. Is this the end or is it just the beginning?
A4. It’s the beginning. Even though the blog of our real-time overland adventure is at a convenient stopping point, the Vanamos family will not go away. We will be launching our own website – www.vanamos.net – very shortly.
On the website you will find updated articles about our experience posted weekly, the latest about our vantastic Volkswagen Westfalia – Wesley, information about preparations and budgeting for our year long adventure that you can use to plan your own trip, maps, what we know about border crossings, family travel guides for each country we visited so you know where to go and what to do, photos of me in a bathing suit to print and hang around your house for daily inspiration, and much, much more.
So stay tuned and let our end (of sorts) be your beginning. If I’ve delivered any message at all this year, let it be that there is a lot more to life than living 9 to 5.
After driving nearly 14,000 miles in eleven months to Panama and back, Wesley had delivered us to Laredo, Texas, with 12 days to go 2,000 miles to NJ for my niece’s baptism. With our spectacular border crossing in the rear view mirror, we found a Worldschoolers family north of Houston who is in the midst of selling their house and belongings in preparation for their own around- the-world-adventure. Israel, Michelle, and their three boys Joaquin, Jovani, and Judah, were gracious hosts who allowed us to use their beds, eat their food, swim in their pool, and stick around their house for two days while the epoxy we used to seal Wesleys’ leaky engine coolant recovery tank cured. This tank was the part that burst its seams while crossing into the U.S. and Israel talked me into taking the extra day to remove the part from the engine compartment and seal it rather than invest many dollars in extra coolant to keep the tank topped off during our drive home. It was a good call and has spared R and me a lot of anxiety during the long days of driving.
The Vanamos team (sans Coconut) poses with our host family in Spring, TX – Israel, Michelle, Judah, and Jovani. Also missing from the picture is their 13-year old – Joaquin.
Since we crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. we’ve flown a butterfly path nearly 2,000 miles long towards the east coast along state highways, American scenic byways, and windy country roads. We have avoided interstates for a number of reasons. First, Wesley does not have air conditioning so we roll with the windows wide and the constant truck and SUV traffic on the interstate makes a lot of noise as it speeds past. Second, Wesley tops out at about 55 m.p.h. – I kid you not, we’ve been pulled over twice for driving too slow – and we can hit that just as well on even the curviest of backroads as we can on an interstate. Finally, the interstates are boring. There is more to see when riding the state roads, and the glimpse it provides into small town life makes us feel more connected to a place even though we are just passing through.
Justice was delivered swiftly at this spot in Texas.
Fireworks store in TN. J imagines all the mischief he could cause if he only had the time.
Abandoned farmhouse in VA. Scenery along the country roads is more interesting.
We’ve hardly seen any people as we buzz by under the canopy of the country roads. They apparently only come out of their air-conditioned houses to mow their expansive lawns, put gas in their cars, and visit the ubiquitous Dollar General. We can, however, smell the same roadkill as the locals, see the rusty cars and other stuff they have piled in their yards, and get a measure on what makes each town unique. We’ve driven through the Arkansas hometown of Miss Teen 2008 (Stevi Perry), saw the Mississippi swamp where Kermit the Frog was born, shared a cookie in Alabama with the uncle of former major league baseball player Josh Willingham, and been enticed from our lunchtime picnic table by a personal tour of the local history museum in Goliad, Texas, by staff member Marty.
This is the design on the town flag of Goliad, Texas. It dates from the Texas movement for independence from Mexico and represents determination, as in – we will cut off our arm before we submit to your tyranny.
We also made a few interesting stops. The Natchez Trace Parkway follows a 500 mile long trail formerly used by bison to go from watering holes in Natchez, Mississippi, to salt licks near Nashville, Tennessee. After pioneer hunters killed all the bison, it was used for commerce and ambushes by Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez Indians, Ohio Valley tradesmen, and cutthroat bandits. We stopped at the Parkway visitor center for Pioneer Day where Coconut stitched a leather pouch, J wove a basket, and I read the informational displays which I’ve summarized in the previous sentences.
J will be prepared for Basket Weaving 101 when he gets to college.
Coconut learns how to stitch a pouch out of deer skin to carry her musket balls and/or headphones.
We also stopped at the visitor center for the distillery of the internationally famous Jack Daniel’s Whiskey in tiny Lynchburg, Tennessee. We learned that Jasper “Jack” Daniel died from an infection in his toe after kicking his office safe in frustration, further supporting an article I recently read that alcohol makes people more violent.
I wax poetic about Jack Daniel’s charcoal mellowing process while Coconut thinks about Pinterest.
I was okay to drive after leaving the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, because there were no free samples.
We spent our last day on the road at Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA. It’s a nice park with a great swimming lake but our stay was overshadowed by the fact that the next day would be the last of our year-long overland trip.
The Vanamos team poses with Wesley in Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA. Our final day on the road before returning to Alexandria.
On Monday, we arrived in Alexandria. Coconut and J were excited to soak up a few days at home with their friends before we set off to New Jersey for the baptism and then to my father’s lake house in New York for the month of August, but R and I were not excited to arrive. As we drove through town it seemed that not a blade of grass had changed, despite the fact that we felt very different. The weight of reintegration had already settled over us, and we know it will be more difficult than reintegrating after a week-long vacation because we’ve experienced something bigger.
We’ll keep our heads up. As Michelle, our Houston host, said to us – even though we felt like we were imposing in a big way, having us there, talking about our experiences and all the things that they have been excited about, was like infusing new blood into them. It renewed their vigor amidst the stresses of going to work, trying to sell the house, and daily living in an American suburb. Somehow, we’ve got to channel all the excitement that we’ve felt for each day on the road into building a new plan for our future – even though starting in September, the immediate future will be spent in Alexandria.
On Monday we crossed the border from Mexico to the United States at Laredo, Texas. This is the same border crossing we used in August 2015 to get from the US to Mexico to begin our year-long overland adventure. We would have liked to take a different route back to see new things but our second choice of crossing, at Brownsville, TX, is only accessible by Mexico Route 101. This road was recently dubbed the most dangerous highway in Mexico by NPR due to the proliferance of kidnappings and carjackings by bandits and organized crime gangs.
We thought that being left naked in the desert would be a bad way to end our year of overland travel, though honestly, everything we have with us is threadbare from a year of constant use so would likely have no value to anyone. Only Wesley, our 1985 VW Westfalia, which has a brand new coat of paint and sparkles like a Kristy McNichol smile from “Little Darlings” would attract any attention.
So we chose Laredo again. And even though we’ve done many border crossings since last August and they’ve lost their intimidation factor, we were still a little nervous because of the 20 kilos of pure Colombian powder, the two migrants, the satchelful of weapons, and the copy of “The Great Shark Hunt,” Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo commentary on American politics that we had in the roof box.
Things got even more interesting when we pulled up to Aduana (Mexican Customs) in Nuevo Laredo (on the Mexican side of the border) to cancel our temporary vehicle import permit. The line was longer than anything Tony Montana would have contemplated and the temperature was 115 degrees. To ratchet things up a notch, we got conflicting advice from Mexican Customs officials about whether we needed to have our passports stamped out of Mexico (we opted for the stamp). Finally, with our paperwork complete and after a possibly illegal U-Turn against oncoming traffic, we found ourselves in another long line to cross the bridge over the Rio Grande to the US.
You can buy anything while waiting in traffic to cross the border, even a large wooden carving of Jesus on the cross.
By this time Wesley’s temperature gauge was reaching extreme levels and despite turning the engine off every chance we could, the red warning light started blinking just as we put our nose onto the bridge.
“That’s good.” I said. “It means it’s working. It’s not a problem until the red light stays on.”
“Screeeee!!” said Wesley in a high pitched voice which turned out to be engine coolant bursting from the hose that led from the coolant recovery tank and spilling onto the hot pavement of Puente Internactional II like so much green blood. Ah, the irony. After 12,000 miles and eight countries Wesley had staged a temperature tantrum on the threshold of America. We had overheated and there was nothing we could do but turn the engine off and wait for it to cool down.
Wesley spilled its guts on the pavement in protest of our return to the States
In true rat-race fashion, though, cars immediately started cutting the line in front us. Nobody stepped out of their vehicles and paused for a moment of silence, came to offer us condolences, or even blinked an eye. After all the mountains Wesley had climbed, all the narrow streets it had navigated, all the deserts it had crossed, all the memories it had given us over the last eleven months, this felt like a slap in the face. So, rather than sit there and be a spectacle, we put Coconut behind the wheel and J, R, and I stepped out of Wesley like proud parents and pushed.
Being behind the wheel while crossing an international border was definitely not what Coconut thought she would be doing when she woke up Monday morning. But she stepped up during crunch time.
Despite our best efforts, though, we couldn’t push fast enough to keep the gap with the car in front of us tight enough so that people couldn’t continue to edge in. Heartless bastards! Then, further solidifying the respect we feel for the country and people we were leaving, a Mexican woman stepped out of the air conditioned car behind us and put herself between us and the car in front like a linebacker stepping into a hole between the tackles that was there only a moment before. Now we could inch our way towards the border like everyone else!
Wesley crossed seven countries and wears their flags like badges of honor but needed to be coerced to return to the States.
After several minutes of this situation, another Mexican offered to pull in front and tow us with a rope. This worked perfectly until he ran out of gas and had to remove the towline from his rear bumper, where it was attached to us, and place it on his front bumper so another Mexican guy he had flagged down could tow him.
Wesley was towed across the bridge, until . . .
. . . the car towing us ran out of gas and became the tow-ee.
By this time, though, we had pushed and been pulled to within thirty yards of the checkpoint (no longer thinking in meters as measurements in our minds went from metric to imperial halfway across the bridge.) However, the final approach was up a slight grade and Coconut, who was now pushing so she wouldn’t get arrested for driving underage, slipped because she couldn’t get enough purchase on the oil-slick tarmac to push Wesley across the finish line. The moment of truth had come. R turned the ignition key and Wesley roared back to life. R gunned the engine to finish strong but just as we were about to throw up our arms so the tape could break across our chests like we had run a 12,000 mile marathon, the customs officer put an orange cone down and walked away. Shift change.
R turned off the engine rather than idle and we waited, flushed and sweating like drug mules; adrenaline and fatigue mixing together. Coconut was so exhausted from the experience of being thrust behind the wheel to steer the van across an international border that she said she felt like crying. J was as red as a tomato and R and I felt time stand still like we were waiting in line at the grocery while the cashier changed the tape to give us a receipt. Rather than peruse the celebrity gossip magazines, we should have rehearsed her lines.
Except for a few miles in North Carolina and Alabama, and two hours the day before, I had driven Wesley the entire trip. We expected that I would be behind the wheel when we made our final border crossing and I had practiced how I would answer certain questions, not because we had anything to hide, but because some of them are open-ended. When the officer asked where we were coming from, we didn’t want to launch into a paragraphs-long narrative about our last twelve months. We wanted to be as concise, yet as honest, as possible. R was not prepared.
US Customs Officer, “Where are you coming from?”
R, “Uh. Mexico.”
“Where in Mexico are you coming from?”
“Uh. We drove all over. This time we were in San Miguel de Allende for about a month.”
“You were in Mexico for a month?”
“This time. We were here for about three months before.”
“You’ve been in Mexico before?”
“No, this was the first time.”
Pause. “Where are you going?”
Pause. Officer pokes his head into the driver’s side window and eyeballs Coconut and J in the back. “Do you have any illegal contraband in the vehicle?”
“No. We checked the website last night and ate all of our fruits and vegetables. We have some cheese and salami.”
“Any weapons or alcohol?”
“No. We have a bottle of mezcal and some fruity kind of liquor that we brought from a vendor along the side of the road.”
In retrospect, R’s answers were so contradictory that no international smuggler would ever utter them, but so nonsensical that no border guard worth his weight in salt could let them go unchecked. The officer walked into his little glass booth and came back with an orange slip of paper that he stuck under our freshly painted wiper blade. “Pull forward to secondary inspection. An officer will direct you where to go.”
We pulled forward and an officer directed us into a garage where various other vehicles were in various stages of being inspected. One family parked next to us had all of their luggage on a table and two officers were opening suitcases, trying on dresses, and snacking on yucca chips. Another vehicle was being driven around by a US Customs officer and everywhere officers were walking around with those mirrors on a pole that you can use to look up girls’ skirts.
Oh boy, I thought. We’ve been living in this van for a year. They are bound to find something. A stray firecracker. A pocketknife. A withered piece of fruit. Which one of us should go to jail? I figured they should take R because she was driving, and really, it made financial sense for us because I have the higher paying job.
Fortunately, the officer tagged to inspect our vehicle didn’t appear to want to be bothered. He asked a few questions which I helped answer (i.e., Where are you coming from? We spent last night in Monterrey), got us out of the van, and poked around a bit in the living room before telling us we could go. I heard him ask another officer if he had made any lunch plans. Since it was about 4 in the afternoon and the guy had apparently not yet eaten lunch, he must have had other things on his mind than looking for contraband on a family of four from Virginia.
Fine with us. We drove away without anyone welcoming us back to the States or mentioning Wesley’s eyelashes – which were a big hit at all our other border crossings. We used dead armadillos as mile markers (I’ve seen hundreds of armadillos but have yet to see a live one) and drove a ways into Texas before stopping to rent an overpriced hotel room at a Days Inn. Just another spectacular day in our year of overland travel.