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.
When we first conceived this year-long fairy tale of an overland adventure, we anticipated arriving in Patagonia in Argentina after eleven months and 29 days of driving, hopping in a plane to D.C., and shipping Wesley back to Baltimore. The trip would have a clearly defined beginning – when we left Alexandria – and ending – when we got on a plane to go home.
The Homestead, July 2015.
Before we left on the trip we realized we would not make it to Patagonia because it would not allow us to plant a flag anywhere for longer than a few days. We would have to be in the van, driving, a lot. Instead, we saw Bolivia as the horizon of our dreams. But we still expected to get on a plane and ship Wesley home.
At some point after we set forth we reevaluated that plan and decided that we would not be extending our year-long trip (more about how Coconut and J helped make that decision below) for longer than a year, and that Panama was as far as we could go. To go further, i.e., to go to South America, 1) required us to put Wesley into a container at great expense to ship it to Columbia, and 2) it didn’t make financial sense to do this because we wouldn’t have much time to drive around before we had to pack Wesley into a container again at great expense to ship it home.
We reached Panama City on April 25 – too soon to call it quits and ship the van home and too late to pack it up and ship it to Columbia. That left us no alternative but to turn around and drive Wesley back to Alexandria in reverse order through all the countries we had driven in the last eight months.
While it didn’t seem a great option at first, in retrospect we are happy with it because a second opportunity to drive through each country has allowed us to chart different routes than we took the first time. This has given us a fuller experience with each country. For example, on the way to Panama City, our impression was that nothing existed in the country for hundreds of miles between destinations except houses built on stilts and mosquitoes. On the way out, along the Pan American highway, Panama started to look like a more modern country with towns and stores. Though, no matter where you go, it’s really hot (except, apparently, in Boquete, an expat mountain enclave in the northwest which we missed both times.)
Costa Rica was as expensive on our first pass down the Caribbean coast as on our second pass up the Pacific coast, but we got to spend our hard earned colones with different merchants and confirm our suspicion that Costa Rica is the US’s expensive callgirl. Our second time through Nicaragua, of course, was unforgettable. We met a beautiful, inspiring family in Paul, Marisa, and their two great kids Owen and Abby, we got to reconnect with our chocolate-making, idealist friend Maria and her son Angelo, and we purchased a piece of property that will ensure we go back at least once. More likely, we will go back many times.
Our first time through El Salvador we took the beach road, which felt very developed and familiar. On our second pass, we stuck to the northern mountain areas which have a more local, agricultural, and revolutionary flavor. And in Guatemala, we drove through the highlands instead of the lowlands so got to see the mountains and volcanoes for which the country is known.
By seeing different parts of each country, we were able to re-evaluate our first impressions. Mexico isn’t as dirty or poor as we first thought, mainly because countries to the south are dirtier and poorer. But it still has the best food, the friendliest people, and is the most affordable.
On the other hand, deciding to turn around and go back was the hardest choice we have made – harder than breaking our road rules, accepting our homeschool failures, or living our couch potato existence – because in the end we’ll be home and both R and I expect to hate being back in Alexandria (no offense to all of our very good friends who live there). Unlike Paul Simon, we do not wish we were homeward bound.
R and I are certain that if we didn’t have kids we would not have turned around. It’s hard to describe the freedom one feels being untethered from the responsibility of a job or a cell phone or any of the trivial things that seem to matter so much, and to be able to spend your days exactly how you choose to spend them. However you imagine that freedom of choice would feel, it is a baker’s dozen times better. And of course, there are all the awesome countries we’ve seen, experiences we’ve had, and people we’ve met along the way.
Picking up people is always fun. This is on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, where if you miss the bus for the ferry to the mainland, you’ll wait until tomorrow.
Playa Maderas, Nicaragua. Three friends hitched a ride on the way to town.
As I have said many times to my family while playing my tiny violin, I have the most to lose by going back to Alexandria because I am the one who goes back to work. The thought of being behind a desk again is more than depressing. It’s like I’m flour and someone mixes me with water and salt, takes a tiny piece of me and rolls it into a ball, then flattens me in a tortilla press over and over until there’s nothing left of me but circular pieces of cooked dough that will get stale and fed to the street dogs.
Coconut and J made it clear early on, however, that they would not be happy overlanding for longer than a year and rather than force them, R and I conceded. After all, part of this experience is to empower them to be able to make choices that impact their lives. And we understand their perspective. Overlanding is hard, and we now know it is particularly hard for our kids who like a modicum of stability, which packing up and driving on every few days does not provide. They both did better when we were settled in a place for a week or more, and R and I can accept that this is what our future abroad looks like, at least so long as we have Coconut and J in tow. For now, we need to help them to envision that future.
There is always a way out.
Coconut and J expect going home to be the best thing since Netflix added another season of whatever crap it is they watch to its catalogue. And R and I realize we did this to ourselves by being responsible persons and good providers. If we lived in Alexandria in a house with a leaky roof and no window screens, had to share a bathroom with our neighbors, and polished shoes at the Metro station to put food on the table, Coconut and J may not want to go back there.
They expect to go back to doing the same things that they did before we left that have made them want to return in the first place, and to love it. While that warm, fuzzy feeling of something familiar may exist for them initially, as responsible parents, R and I feel an obligation to do everything we can to make them hate it.
We know being home isn’t going to be as much fun as they think it is. Their freedom to wake up and fry their brains with 16 straight hours of YouTube, and our ability to cater to their needs, are going to be severely compromised by all the other demands of rejoining the race, and we won’t let them forget it either. We want them to remember that they have a choice.
The first time Coconut says she doesn’t want to go to school – whoa-ho-ho! Let’s get a plane ticket to somewhere. Every time J complains about doing homework or studying for a test – Hey-hey-hey. Remember when you didn’t have homework or tests? Whenever they want to eat out – we’ll eat PB&J at home.
Are you kidding me? You would choose elementary school over this?
R has said over and over that this year has been her lifelong dream come true (which implies that I am her Prince Charming?!) She has also recently lamented that when the end of a fairy tale gets writ, everyone lives happily ever after. But we don’t see this ending – returning to Alexandria – as our happily ever after.
We’ve stepped through the wardrobe, seen Narnia, and it’s unsettling for us to be stepping back into our former lives after such a transformative experience. In fact, it seems like a step backwards. And maybe, after the glow of excitement from renewing old habits has dimmed for Coconut and J, the memories of all they have seen and done will take hold and coalesce around this thought – that living in Candyland is pretty sweet.
Posted from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
We were young and naive. Before we left on our year long overland trip through Mexico and Central America in our 1985 VW Westfalia camper van, we thought we could follow two very simple “road rules,” that our kids would take an interest in learning, and that we would all come back fit and healthy.
Things did not go as planned.
You can read how we broke our “road rules” here, and how good students can make crappy homeschoolers here. Regarding our non-existent exercise routine, read on.
I need exercise like some people need sleep. In my 9 to 5 life I was biking to work, lifting weights, stretching like Mr. Fantastic, running on weekends, playing backyard sports with the kids, and rolling around on the floor with my wife – I mean, I was living the dream.
R is not much for exercise for the sake of exercise. She prefers the kind of movement that comes with an active lifestyle. She’s coordinated, athletic, and confident and this makes her good at most physical activities. She claims to have beaten me at tennis, but I don’t remember. A few years ago she had earned her green belt in karate, which is like one step down from being the antagonist in a Steven Seagal movie, but stopped going to the dojo when I started picking fights so she could step in and kick the guys’ asses.
R prefers alternative forms of exercise to sit-ups and push-ups. Here, she is rock climbing in El Potrero Chico in northern Mexico.
J and Coconut got the normal exercise kids get from playing outside with their friends, playing inside with their friends, and going to school. By dumb luck, we stumbled into buying a town house with no yard but with a park directly behind us. Being the exceptional parents we are, R noticed, and I agreed, that if J didn’t get outside time each day to run off some of his spunk, he was a real pain in the ass come bedtime. On days he had been stuck indoors, we would go to the park as a family after dinner to throw and hit a baseball (we changed to a tennis ball as the kids got better at hitting so we didn’t break any car windows), shoot the basketball off of the backboard and maybe even hit the rim, and generally goof around in an active way.
Sunset football is a good way to have fun on the beach
While making preparations to leave on our year-long trip I came across a few articles that mentioned all the yummy treats that would be available and how I should try them because hey, when in Rome, but that trying them could lead to something like the “freshman fifteen” in my forties. So, apart from the thought that my limbs would be hacked off with a machete and my torso hung from the underside of an overpass, what to do for exercise while south of the border is what kept me awake at night.
We considered bringing bikes, not only to burn calories but also for transport once Wesley was parked and set up for camp. But where do you put four bikes on a Westy? Weights were out of the question, of course, our van would be heavy enough with all the gear we were carrying, and I nixed the idea of bringing a hard foam roller to keep my back in alignment because it took up too much space. We would need to think outside the box.
I considered fish wrestling as a form of exercise but they kept ending up in my belly.
As a testament that I hardly knew my family, I put together an exercise program that didn’t require any stuff besides our bodies – things like push-ups, jumping jacks, deep knee bends – and expected that we would all do it together a couple of mornings each week. But I had miscalculated several factors that, in retrospect, may have been obvious.
First, you can’t lie down in the grass in Mexico or Central America to do a sit-up because if you are lucky, ants will crawl up your shirt and bite the shit out of you. If you are unlucky, it will be a scorpion or a spider. So, anything that requires you to get down on the ground is out of the question.
This is a scorpion (a dead one!) on R’s belly. It serves as an illustration of all the creepy crawlies that might end up getting friendly with your privates if you are bold enough to sit in the grass in Central America.
Second, it’s too damn hot to move around because I only brought three T-shirts. I can’t afford to have one soaked through with sweat before breakfast because I decided to do twenty-five scissor kicks. I need to wear the shirt tomorrow, and possibly the next day as well.
So, what did we do for exercise? Basically, nothing. That is, nothing that anyone could call regular exercise. Instead, we try to find things to do daily that require us to move our bodies. Hiking is an obvious choice as there are so many beautiful areas to explore, but we do not go on family “hikes” because the word brings tears to the kids’ eyes. I’ve managed to do a few solo hikes, but not nearly enough as have been there for the walking.
Coconut and J were all for climbing a volcano to go ash boarding, but not all hikes end with the thrill of sleigh riding down a mountain.
Walking, as they say, is the best exercise and we did a fair amount of it. The trick here is for us to be careful that our walks don’t end at the store so we can buy two liters of beer and an ice cream cone.
We had fun joining baseball games on the beach or in the banana fields, kicking the soccer ball around with the locals, and doing our own thing with a ball or Frisbee. We all love to swim in the ocean and there is nothing that makes you feel so alive as dragging your body onto the beach after it was thrown about by the Pacific surf, but then Coconut informed us she hated sand and proved it when we spent three weeks at Playa Marsella in Nicaragua by sitting on the couch the entire time while the rest of us splashed around daily.
J waits for his pitch on the beach on Ometepe Island.
Coconut did some snorkeling with us early in the trip before announcing that she no longer liked the ocean.
Surfing is a great upper body exercise and we’ve tried it, but we do not have the lean, tanned bodies of the surfer. Rather, we have the sore, bruised bodies of the non-surfer.
The adventure activities we’ve done like zip-lining and tree climbing might count as exercise because they require a modicum of upper body strength and you have to hike to each platform, but our budget does not allow us that indulgence frequently enough. Stepping off the Tarzan Swing and free-falling definitely gave me a cardio work out by raising my heart rate to dangerous levels.
Unlike her father, Coconut is an adrenaline junkie and loves to zip line.
In some places I saw people lifting heavy rocks over their heads and I did that a few times in lieu of lifting weights, but I can’t always find a heavy rock at camp. And most of the time I don’t want to because, well, it’s hot and when it comes down to it, I’m lazy.
We were all disappointed to learn that hanging around poolside doesn’t count as exercise. We did it anyway.
If the park where we are wandering has exercise machines or a pull up bar we’ll fool around with them, but this is more like a one night stand with exercise, not a relationship.
As a result of all these flirtations with exercise but failure to make a commitment, I’ve definitely gained weight and lost muscle mass and Coconut and J don’t like to walk up a staircase without complaining unless we’ve bribed them with a treat for reaching the top. This all has to stop when we get back to Alexandria.
The only one of us who is in better shape than when we started is R – she lost weight and is looking like she did when she was in high school. I’m hoping my re-initiation into the regular exercise routine is going to involve a lot of rolling around on the floor.
Posted from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
We thought leaving behind our responsibilities and driving overland through the Americas in a 1985 VW Westfalia camper van would be endless servings of strawberries and cream. But it has turned out to be a lot harder than we expected. As our new friend Claude said one night as we washed our dinner dishes, “Everyone at home thinks we’re on vacation. But this is hard work.”
Claude has been traveling with his wife for fifteen years, so speaks from experience. In order for anything to get done, you’ve got to do it. And the best laid plans often go awry. Before we set out on our trip, R and I had plans for driving, homeschooling, and exercise.
You can read how the reality of our “road rules” clashed with our ideal here – in The Hardest Part – Driving. Part two of the series follows.
In advance of our year on the road, we presented the Alexandria City Public School (ACPS) system with a thoughtful home school curriculum covering everything from animal migratory patterns to car mechanics that any self-motivated student would be thrilled and excited to study. ACPS stamped its approval and we went merrily on our way. What we didn’t consider was that we would not be bringing any self-motivated students along with us.
Coconut and J relax before bed time with their screens – the scourge of the 21st century parent.
Naively, R and I envisioned an idyllic experience where Coconut and J would willingly pull out their lessons on driving days, ask thoughtful questions about the Mayan ruins or other historical sites where we were picnicking, and pose for pictures to put in the photo journal they would make and treasure so much that they would ask to be buried with it.
This ideal was based on past performance in a school room setting. Both Coconut and J are good students who are conscientious about their work and who get good grades. However, R and I have learned that this does not translate to being self-motivated homeschoolers. Rather than anything remotely resembling our ideal, we got constant conflict from Coconut and J about doing their self-directed math lessons on CD in the car (they both claim it gives them a headache). It wasn’t until I sat down with J to review each lesson with him that he finally began to show an inclination to achieve. As a consolation prize for my time lost, I learned how to multiply and divide fractions.
Our “classrooms” have been varied. Homeschooling didn’t go as we planned.
The only question either one of them ever asked at a ruin or museum was “When are we leaving?” As a variation, the other would ask, “How much longer?” Sometimes they would ask for ice cream.
Coconut and J take a break from complaining to rest on the ruins at Palenque.
As for photos, we’ve taken a lot of them. Coconut is even in some, though usually she has her hand in front of the camera, warding-off-the-paparazzi-style. At the start, I had asked her to help me with selecting the photos to post with the blog entries. She picked her gaze up from her Kindle long enough to give me an incredulous look and never gave it a second thought.
Even fun things like bouncing around in the back of a tuk-tuk can be boring.
So, for a while, whenever anyone asked us about homeschooling – and you would be surprised how many young, good-looking backpackers ask us about homeschooling – R and I would roll our eyes and tell them the truth. It was a complete failure.
It was only recently when R and I started seriously talking about how we were going to convince ACPS that Coconut and J have showed “adequate evidence of educational progress” to move to the next grade that we realized things are not so bleak. We have done a lot of things and been to a lot of places, so, willingly or not, the kids have been exposed to a lot.
It is hard to quantify what has been learned because this is not the traditional, formal schooling with which R and I are familiar. There are no test scores, book reports, or oral presentations to grade, and being products of the public school systems ourselves, I think this is what initially gave us pause. But, in retrospect, the exposure has resulted in absorption, which translates to learning.
Early in the trip we taste tested junk food as part of our PanAmerican Survey of Snack Foods Lesson.
We started our year on the road by driving through the Deep South and visiting spots significant to the U.S. civil rights movement. In Atlanta we visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site which includes the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached and his burial site and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. In Memphis, TN, we went to the Lorraine Motel where he was assassinated, and in Birmingham, AL, we visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, bombed in 1963, and killing four little girls. We also watched the movie Selma. Coconut has since compared the US civil rights movement to the continuing struggles of the indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America.
Family photo (sans Coconut, who must have taken the picture) at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Visits to the Mayan cities of Palenque in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala, as well as to other pre-hispanic sites, have introduced the kids to the existence and achievements of these cultures, as well as framed the impact the Spanish conquistadores had on their decline. J later recognized Monte Alban, a spectacular Zapotec ruin we visited which is situated on a plateau above the Oaxaca valley in Mexico, in the Jack Black movie “Nacho Libre.” Black, playing the character of a cook named Ignacio, takes a group of orphans to visit the site. “We’ve been there!” J shouted. “School of Rock” notwithstanding, who knew there could be anything of value in a Jack Black movie?
J tolerated our visit to Monte Alban (Coconut sat in the visitor center) and later recognized it in the movie “Nacho Libre”.
We’ve visited modern Mayan villages in the mountains of Chiapas state in Mexico and in Guatemala and seen the subsistence level existence the people endure. We’ve talked about their history and why streets are blockaded in protest for equal rights in land ownership and other basic human rights of which they have been robbed for centuries. Coconut’s year-long project will explore the causes of the revolutions that have impacted and shaped living conditions and economic opportunities in the countries we have visited.
We had a chance to stay with a local family and experience cooking outdoors on wood fire and living in a square, brick house with dirt floors.
We’ve walked through rainforests, cloudforests, and jungles, and stood on beaches while tens of thousands of sea turtles arrived to nest in a spectacular natural phenomenon known as an arribata.
Playa Esobilla, in Oaxaca State, Mexico, is one of the world’s major nesting grounds for the olive ridley sea turtle. Once a month between September and January, hundreds of thousands of turtles come ashore to nest.
If you’re lucky like we were, your visit will be perfectly timed so that the mass nesting coincides with the hatching from the previous month’s nesting. Turtle-mania ensues with mothers and hatchlings crossing paths on the beach.
We’ve visited animal rescue centers to understand how humans can impact these various ecosystems and affect the plants and animals that thrive there. In the wild we’ve seen howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and white-faced monkeys, huge flocks of noisy green parrots, several variety of toucans, all sizes of lizards, tarantulas, and geckos, dolphins, caimans and crocodiles, sloths and starfish. We know to watch out for scorpions in our shoes and which ant bites hurt the most. We searched for sharks in Lake Nicaragua but didn’t see any.
J watches a rescued sloth eat the hibiscus flowers he gathered for it.
We’ve seen ten full moon cycles and watched the sky above Ometepe Island, Nicaragua, unblemished by a single light bulb for miles around and filled with more stars than we imagined existed (and satellites too). We’ve seen Jupiter and Mars and countless shooting stars.
The full moon rises over the Catedral in Cordoba, just as it has done every cycle since 1688.
And the Panama Canal? Forget about it. An entire years’ curriculum could be built around it alone. It’s rich in history, colonial-era and 20th century geopolitical intrigue, feats of medical science and modern engineering, and plays a major role in global commerce and economy. We learned that the size of the canal (110’ wide x 1000’ long) has determined the size of ocean vessels, which are built to fit through the canal and called “Panamax.” On the physical spectrum, traversing it as line handlers on a private boat introduced entry-level sailing skills like navigation and knot-tying. As a bonus, for those who meet the prerequisite (i.e., over age 21) there is a 400-level course in rum drinking with Captain Sandro.
Going through the Panama Canal gave us each a chance to get behind the wheel of a sailboat.
Understanding how the lock system works in the Panama Canal is more interesting when you are in the locks.
Many of the people we have met have provided input as well. For the most part, they are young travelers who are excited to see Coconut and J having this experience and who teach lessons by words and actions – people who are leading bike tours, who are traveling after recovering from a serious accident, who volunteer time to help humans and/or animals in need, who have sold successful businesses, who have started successful businesses, who make chocolate or teach yoga or surf.
Coconut and J’s conversations with these adults are more meaningful than those they may have with adults at home about boring topics like school and sports. Coconut doesn’t want to hear us tell her how to wash clothes on a pila, but she can see how it is done by helping a traveler who is living on $200 a month and has to wash her own clothes or have nothing clean to wear. J can’t learn how to handle a machete from me, but willingly listens and watches others who have handled them for years.
Coconut and J both appreciate advice from people who more clearly remember being 13 and can tell them to just ignore their parents and walk away when they do embarrassing things like sing and dance.
In Costa Rica we helped build a floating house, an introduction to carpentry and the concept of water displacement. Fanny and Joe taught the kids how best to deal with embarrassing parents.
We’ve met people exploring the world in a lot of different ways and I think what I have learned is that Coconut and J don’t have to have the same dreams that I did when I was their age. There are a lot of options. And understanding that is the best education they can get.
Since we left El Salvador on June 9 we have driven Wesely over 1,000 miles across Guatemala and Mexico and I’ve got the driver’s tan to prove it – my left forearm is as red as tomato soup. It’s not our style to blow through places so quickly, but at this point in our year long trip we are focused on getting back to Alexandria for better or for worse. Despite our accelerated pace, we’ve managed to squeeze some fun in between our long driving days.
For the most part, we’ve stuck to the mountains for the cooler temperatures and because we know that Wesley can handle the steep. Our first night back in Guatemala we spent on a former chicken farm overlooking the capital, Guatemala City, a big sprawling metropolis. I couldn’t spot a single church steeple poking up through the haze that hung over the city, which was surprising given the devoutness of the people. As we were driving through the city I saw a woman cross herself before stepping into the street, I regularly see drivers cross themselves when passing a church, and I’ve seen people weeping in church – weeping! – at cartoonish sculptures of Jesus in the different stations of the Cross. And it wasn’t even on a Sunday,
A gaggle of geese cross the field at our camp in the hills overlooking Guatemala City.
In Chichicastenango, a big market town in the Western highlands of Guatemala, we took a guided tour to learn how the Mayan have merged some of their own voodoo-like beliefs into Catholicism. For example, a shamaan and his wife will smoke enormous cigars for you and somehow this will hex people who are more successful in business. They can also perform honest ceremonies for loved ones.
J, Coconut and I soak up the atmosphere in the Chichi market.
Ever get the feeling that someone is watching?
On market day, we made sure everyone was successful by treating Quetzales like popcorn, including buying 15 yards of fabric to have Wesley’s seats reupholstered in Mexico where we think the cost of services will be less.
So many colors to choose from!
The ride out of Guatemala along the Pan American winds through the mountains at 2,100 meters and periodically, when the rain clouds broke up, we were treated to some expansive vistas. It was long and arduous driving as the road went not only up and down, but up and over dozens of topes – that speed bump in the road designed to take the place of traffic lights and slow everyone from flying through town – but the route chosen was worth it to see a part of the country we had not seen on our first pass through.
We were all excited to get back to Mexico where we spent four months at the outset of the trip. We made a short stop of two nights in San Cristobal de las Casas – where we spent over a week in December. The city was as great as we remembered, but the campground we loved before was different in that it lost the people we enjoyed the first time through and was instead full of people who don’t clean the pots and dishes after using them. I don’t care if they are working on world peace in their room, those are the worst kind of people.
We did meet two interesting folks in San Cristobal this time around. Guido is a German adrenaline junkie with an Italian name who likes to ride his motorcycle on horse trails. He left his medical marijuana business in Canada and has been driving south for more than a year with no end in sight as long as his stock keeps returning dividends. He’s 46, the same age as R and me. “It’s a good time to retire,” he said.
Diana, the sauerkraut woman, used to live in Olympia, WA and learned to ferment cabbage with R’s Aunt Lilly. Now she works in a bookstore in San Cristobal and sells probiotic kraut on the side. Diana and R were like giggling schoolgirls talking about Lilly and trading recipes and I expect to eat a lot of cabbage once I get back to Alexandria.
We’ve driven only toll roads since we left San Cristobal and we hate it. It’s expensive – several tolls have cost more than dinner for four – and characterless – nothing to see except rolling green vistas stretching as far as you can see in any direction. There is no doubt that Mexico is naturally beautiful, but I miss waving at people as we drive through town.
One of the toll road exits took us to Cordoba, in Veracruz State, where we spent one night. Our guidebook raved about its Zocalo (central square) and it was here where the terms of the Mexican Independence from Spain were agreed upon in 1821. After wandering around the square with Coconut and J and taking some photos for Coconut’s project on the Revolution, and then marveling from the balcony of our hotel room at a downpour that flooded the streets, R and I left the kids with tacos and had a date night – strolling around the plaza while the mariachi bands serenaded diners. A government building looms over one side of the plaza, and we were delighted to watch the windows light up in a choreographed sequence to classical music that blared from speakers hidden in the building’s facade. There is no place like this in the States.
Old church at the zocalo in Cordoba, a surprisingly nice stop during our hurried trip through Mexico
The next day, with nothing much better to do besides drive, we were persuaded by a billboard to detour to the town of Orizaba and ride the teleférico to the top of Cerro something or other to wander some trails and see the ruins of an old fort where the French massacred a division of the Mexican Army while it slept. In the park at the foot of the mountain a monkey had escaped from its enclosure and we watched a dozen authority figures – both zoo officials and police – try to lure it back into its cage while families played in the massive playground and vendors hawked flowers, food, balloons, and anything else you can imagine. We’ve been stopped at intersections by people walking around selling electrified tennis rackets as fly swatters.
Ever been driving down the road and have a hankering for a giant donut?
After this detour we managed to still reach our destination of Puebla – which is positioned on the outstretched fingertips of Mexico City. We had a great room in an old colonial house a few steps from the zocalo for $40 and spent the weekend wandering around this modern, university city. It boasts a lively zocalo, a variety of food choices, hundreds of stalls selling artesania – including talavera – the painted tiles for which the area is known, and dozens of churches.
Our favorite church, Templo de Santo Domingo, housed a chapel with enough gold plating to make you wonder if the clergy couldn’t have purchased some grain instead and still won the prize for shiniest church. On the macabre end of the spectrum, Templo de San Francisco is home to the 400-year old mummified remains of Friar Sebastian de Aparicio – the builder of the first Mexican roads. He is now recognized as the protector of those who drive so we purchased a few stickers to put on Wesley.
Jonah poses with the mummified remains of Sebastian de Aparicio, the protector of conducirs.
From Puebla, we took another detour to Teotihuacan, which was once Mesoamerica’s greatest city (circa 200-600 A.D.). Its main attraction now is the Piramide del Sol, a 70 meter high structure that ranks as the third highest pyramid in the world (behind Cheops in Egypt and one in Cholula, Mexico). Of course we climbed it, as well as its smaller companion Piramide de la Luna. These pyramids are connected by the Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead), which after centuries is still in better repair than many of the roads we’ve traveled.
R is flanked by Coconut and J atop the Pyramid of the Moon with the massive Pyramid of the Sun poised in the background
Coconut and J were in great spirits despite this being a site of educational merit, but were particularly enthralled by the souvenir vendors. Coconut brought a decorated skull made out of alabaster and cow bone and J added knives made of bone and obsidian to his collection of sharp-edged weapons. These are exactly the kinds of things I would have wanted on my shelves when I was that age.
After being stuck in a traffic jam reminiscent of our Beltway days, we got caught in a rainstorm and waning light so pulled into a Pemex to camp for the night. Pemex is the government run gas station and that is popular as an overnight resting spot and comes in various states of repair – though most are nice. We got an exceptionally nice one this night with a restaurant where we could warm up and eat before going to bed early – there isn’t much to do at a gas station in the rain.
From there it was a short drive to San Miguel de Allende and our friends Sean and Mittie. We spent a few days here in September when we were very green. Now we have stories to tell and a willing audience – Sean and Mittie are preparing to launch their own adventure to Patagonia early next spring.
So, as our adventure winds down, theirs is set to begin – reminding us that even though we’ve traveled 1,000 miles towards home in a week, we are getting closer to our own next big adventure.
Posted from Puebla, Mexico
We thought leaving behind our responsibilities and driving overland through the Americas in a 1985 VW Westfalia camper van would be endless servings of strawberries and cream. But it has turned out to be a lot harder than we expected. I often find myself thinking of what our new friend Claude said to me one night as we washed our dishes in San Cristobal, Mexico. Claude is Swiss and has been driving around the world with his wife for almost fifteen years. He said, “Everyone at home thinks we’re on vacation. But this is hard work.”
Now, to be sure, this is not work in the sense that my shift starts at 9 a.m. and the boss is going to be pissed if I’m late. One of the liberating things about this lifestyle is that we have the complete ability to do whatever we want. If we want to go to the waterfall to swim today we can. Or we can do it tomorrow. If we want to go to Mexico, or stay in Guatemala, the choice is ours.
After more than 4 months in Mexico, we unceremoniously crossed into Guatemala on a whim – because it was raining where we were camping in Mexico.
Every day is Saturday and we can decide to play football, bake brownies, or go for a bike ride and the only consequence to not is that you didn’t play football, bake brownies, or go for a bike ride.
On the other hand, Claude speaks from experience. In order for anything to get done, you’ve got to do it. You can’t leave the dinner dishes in the sink and hope someone else will do them.
And things do not always go as planned. Sometimes there is no water and the dishes have to wait until morning.
What follows are some thoughts on how R and I expected to handle the bigger issues we faced – driving, homeschooling, and exercise – and how things have actually worked out.
Before we set off on our year long trip, before we had any experiential concept of what life on the road would be like, we set a rule that we would not drive more than four hours in one day and we would not drive consecutive four hour days. The rules were designed to remind us that we were trying to get away from the ‘hurry up’ mentality. We had a year and could take our time. The rules would also help us keep our sanity by getting us out of the van often. After all, we had packed our gear and two kids in 80 square feet and were traveling in hot temperatures with no air conditioning.
I thought we would violate the 4-hour rule on the first day when we drove a few miles from Alexandria to Williamsburg (the Route 95 corridor traffic in Virginia can be brutal). I was willing to overlook this, however, as a necessary transgression to get us on our way. Amazingly, that drive took only as long as it should. We took it as a good omen. Saint Christopher was smiling at us.
It wasn’t until our first week in Mexico that we violated the 4-hour rule when we tried to go from Monterrey to Guanajuato. After six hours of driving we were still many kilometers (Spanish for miles) from our destination. We had grossly overestimated the speed at which we could travel.
In order to comply with our more important rule of not driving at night, we pulled into a place called Santa Maria del Rio just before the road was shut down so the villagers could march through town in a religious parade honoring the area’s patron saint. It was our first taste of the surprises that Mexico had to offer and a lesson that sometimes when things do not go as planned, the new plan can be better than the first.
Unfortunately, many areas of Central America and Mexico do not have a Santa Maria del Rio conveniently positioned between destinations and waiting to host a parade and fireworks display to entertain us.
There was a journey in Mexico going from Morelia to Zihuatanejo when we drove consecutive seven hour days to travel 71 kilometers over an incredibly steep, winding, desolate, and pockmarked road in the rain and fog. The few people we saw looked at us like we were out of our minds, which, in retrospect, we were.
Trucks full of people are just one of the common sights on Central American roads.
Slowly, we came to appreciate the distances between places in Mexico and Central America, that there are a lot of mountains and that the roads are not always in good or even decent driving condition. We also needed to factor how slow our van Wesley could go.
This Mexican road would eventually take us into and over the mountains on steep, windy switchbacks.
For example, the distance from Chichicastenango, Guatemala to the Mexican border at La Mesilla is 131 kilometers. Maps.me, our GPS app of choice because we can use it off-line, estimated the trip to take 2 hours and 41 minutes. After ten months on the road, we knew better. It took us 8 hours going up and down 3800 meter high mountains (meter is Spanish for 3 feet) and through ramshackle towns with potholed streets. And we were prepared. We had water, fruit, tuna, and a fully charged iPod for R to play DJ.
Because we do not want to end up wild camping in the dirt along the side of the road (I would be willing to do this, but am outvoted 3 to 1 every time) we now regularly drive more than four hours in a day. While we take precautions to avoid a repeat performance of the Morelia to Zihua drive, we all recognize that long days in the van are necessary.
A long day in the van. We know this was early in the trip because of the length of J’s hair.
We try to avoid consecutive long driving days, but even that rule has its limits. No one wants to spend two nights in Huetamo, Mexico, waiting for a gang war to break out.
A stretch of the Pan-American Highway in Esteli, Nicaragua, was blocked by villagers burning tires in the road, in protest of lack of decent health facilities. In the prior week, three children had died of mosquito-borne disease.
More on our expectations about homeschooling and exercise while on the road, and what actually happened, will be posted soon . . .