At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.
Mancora’s claim to fame is that there’s always something to surf.
In the morning I awoke early, having dreamt all night of riding the curl of Mancora’s famous year-round wave, as promised in our Moon Handbook. I forced my eyes open and rolled out of bed, hopping downstairs using our portable toilet as a step, and stumbled into the morning light. It was already hot out, the desert sun baking my lily white skin as I clumsily stumbled through the sand. I walked onto the beach and stood next to a dead seagull. I squinted across the horizon, but my hopeful gaze was met by the flattest, calmest, glassy surface of an ocean I’d ever seen in my entire life.
“There’s never a wave at Mancora. EVER!”
Tree was smarter than our guidebook. After all, he’d spent a considerable amount of time living the Sprinter Life and surfing the Peruvian coast. Tree would make a better life coach than a Moon Handbook.
Born to Run
Instead of surfing, I laced up my running shoes and followed Sheena into a desert canyon leading away from the beach. I’d just finished reading Born to Run, and was convinced that I actually had an inner Tarahumara Indian deep in my ancestral soul waiting to run his little heart out.
We disappeared around the first bend in the canyon. On the ridge to our left, two mean looking stray dogs watched us like vultures. I could picture the face of a Tarahumara Indian in my mind telling me you were born to run, man! It was pretty hot out, and I can’t say for sure that it wasn’t James Franco saying 127 hours, man! It took 127 hours! We continued deeper into the canyon.
I ran lightly on my toes, shuffling from rock to rock through the canyon while reminding Sheena, “This is all very easy for me. You know, since I was Born to Run.” After a few miles my inner tribesman had fallen ill and shriveled pathetically into the fetal position. We regretted not having brought any water. If my arm were trapped under a boulder out here, I’d be dead in far fewer than 127 hours.
The melting rubber of our shoes flapped against the parched earth in the midday sun as we attempted to steal moments of shade under overhanging cliff walls. Lizards scurried through the dust and my mind wandered to the running book. A white man had drifted into Mexico’s Copper Canyon and become one with the Tarahumara Indians. They called him Caballo Blanco. I wondered what they would call me if I were Born to Run. When I worked at my dad’s Mexican restaurant, the cooks used to call me Girafa. They would make animal calls at me, and when I’d look, they would grab a handful of cilantro and try to feed me. “Tienes hambre, Girafa?” It wasn’t my fault that I was a 6’3″ high schooler. “Whoa there boys, better watch out or I’ll call La Migra.” Knowing more about Mexico and Mexicans now, I still feel badly about threatening to call Immigration on them.
“Aaaayyyaayyaya!” Sheena’s shrill squeal snapped me out of my lethargic daydream, and all at once she was running a circle around me, her pigtail whipping my face. The vulture dogs had been waiting for us, and they knew we’d be out of it. It was at this moment that I realized that I was indeed Born to Run.
In the world of professional soccer, there’s a move called The Flop. A soccer player dribbles the ball skillfully, criss-crosses his way through his opponents’ defensive legwork, and suddenly the ball is stolen. At this moment, the player who had been driving the ball leaps forward, arms flailing, and lands on the ground. His face is pure agony; he’s grasping at his ankle while he falls. He lands on his shoulder in just such a way that he is able to propel himself along the ground in a series of magnificent rolls and somersaults. When, at long last, he finally comes to rest, he does so with his agonized face clasped in his hands. That guy was nearly killed! Is he okay!? That’s what he wants us to think. In reality he wasn’t fouled, but rather put on this elaborate show to try to garner sympathy from the fans and referees. This is the main reason that most North Americans think that soccer players are crybabies.
Peruvian drivers have mastered The Flop. In a country with the worst drivers in all of Latin-America, one would expect a certain level of defensive driving skill to be engrained in every Peruvian from birth. Since crossing the border into Mexico over ten months ago, I’ve become much more comfortable with common-sense driving. Passing with oncoming traffic is just fine; the other guy just moves over a little to allow three cars to pass on a two lane road. It’s just the way it is. For this reason, passing on a blind corner is acceptable if the conditions are right. It may sound crazy to a member of a modern, rule-driven society like America or Europe, but it works down here. We do these things every day. It therefore came as a surprise that once we entered Peru, drivers started completely freaking out. Everywhere we went, drivers were doing The Flop.
In one instance, I followed a slow semi truck down a straight road. A Peruvian approached in the other direction, but there was plenty of room for me to pass. I pulled out and began to pass the truck. Almost immediately, the Peruvian in the oncoming lane started frantically flashing his headlights at me. My heart continued to beat at 63 beats per minute. No reason to be nervous; I’d done this a million times. As I passed the semi truck I signaled and pulled in front of him. A few seconds later the Peruvian passed by, and as he did he performed the most elaborate Driver Flop I’d ever seen. Inside of his cab he created a vivid scene of total disgust. His arms whipped wildly around his cab, his eyes were wild with rage. One arm flailed wildly out the driver’s window, signaling his deep repugnance at me for having nearly killed him. This pass, by the way, would have been totally acceptable even in the USA. Every day we encounter at least two or three Flopping drivers. Crybabies.
Spending extended periods of time in the desert can make a person crazy. In Nevada, people see aliens. In Sedona, hippies seek out energy vortices and pass the day sitting naked on the red rocks, becoming severely sunburned in all the wrong places. Peru’s Northern desert is as vast as any on Earth, and it has its fair share of crazy people. Here, they all wear the same uniform; they’re the police who are stationed in the small pueblos that dot the immense sand wasteland.
The police are deployed in pairs. They place an orange cone in the middle of the highway and stand there going stir crazy in the sun, just waiting for a poor sucker to pass by. Our desert driving days are spent passing slow semi trucks, and then coming across police checkpoints, where all of the slow trucks pass us again. Seeing our milk faces through the windshield, the police lick their lips and flag us down.
“Hello officer, would you like to see my importation paperwork and my license?”
“Where are you from? How far have you driven today? Where are you going? Why don’t you have a front license plate? What kind of van is this? Is this van from the USA or Germany? Do you like Peru? Have you tried the caldo de gallina?” The conversations always start the same. These people are bored, and they lean on my door with their arm perched on my windowsill as they talk. They’re here for the long haul. They have no reason to pull us over other than the fact that they’re bored out of their minds and just need someone to talk to. It’s like being cornered by a conspiracy theorist; you can’t leave until they’ve had enough. It would be fine if it ended here, but every time we’re stopped the police go too far.
“What do you do for a living? How much money do you make?” They always want to know how much you’re worth.
“I’m an engineer, but I prefer not to discuss money.”
“Come on, what’s your salary? You must be very rich to be driving all the way from America.”
“I said I won’t tell you what I earn. But in general people in America make $500 per month.” If they have the right to be jackasses, then I have the right to be a liar. “We earn $500 per month, but rent is $1,000 per month. For this reason, people in America are all in debt and they’re actually very poor. ” Well okay, maybe not a total liar.
“You could live like a King in Peru on $500 per month. Do you guys sleep in your van?” At this, the police officer pokes his crazy head into my window and has a look around. “Wow, it’s like a small apartment in there. Do you and your wife have sex in this van?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand Spanish.” Sure, the whole conversation has been played out in Spanish to this point, but to a crazy person my response may seem rational. The police officer starts motioning with his hands so that I might understand what he’s saying.
“Do you,” (hand gesture) “and your wife,” (hand gesture) “have sex inside of your van?” (grotesque hand gestures)
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand Spanish.”
In Northern Peru, the police are nothing more than insane desert clowns going stir crazy in the sun.
“I’m thinking about getting a wheel alignment done. Do you know of a good place around here?” We had driven for a few weeks on a new tie rod, but hadn’t had our alignment checked. James and Lauren, having temporarily settled down in Huanchaco, would be the perfect people to ask. After all, they were like us – Americans driving the Pan-Am and dealing with similar incompetency issues.
“Don’t do it, man. I brought our truck to the BFGoodrich shop a few weeks ago to get an alignment, and then I drove to Cuzco. When I got there my tires were completely bald.” I looked at his tires; the tread was completely gone with the exception of a 1/2″ ridge on the outside of either front tire.
“What happened?” I asked, my finger sliding over the surface of one of his new racing slicks. They were completely destroyed.
“The guy did the alignment with a broomstick. He held it between the tires, and then adjusted the alignment by eyeballing it. Obviously it didn’t work. These guys have no idea what they’re doing.”
It sounded like I was hearing an echo. If you’re driving the Pan-American highway and need auto work done that you can’t do yourself, you’re better off setting your vehicle on fire and flying home.
We walked inside and found Sheena and Lauren up to no good. Lauren was leaning out of their second floor window holding a piece of string. I could hear a kitten screaming. Closer inspection revealed that the string had a basket tied to the end of it, and in the basket was an open can of tuna. Lauren was trying to bait the neighbor’s kitten it into her hanging basket.
Sheena offered words of advice and encouragement. “Just a little to the left. She’s smelling the tuna. One more leg and she’ll be all the way in…”
Before long the cat had taken the bait, and Lauren reeled her away from her loving home in the tipsy basket. Brian David Mitchell celebrated his kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart by setting up camp by a river in the Wasatch Mountains and reciting a marathon of Mormon prophecies to his victim. We intimidated our victim by making popcorn and playing a game of Gin Rummy on the roof. “Squeakers” pleaded a relentless torrent of high pitched squeaks. Like Brian David Mitchell, we didn’t even care.
We sat around James and Lauren’s apartment, the lease for which they had recently taken over from Stevie and Tree of Sprinter Life, and talked about what had happened since our last meeting. They were with us on the morning that our transmission failed in Colombia, but they had continued on while we remained in the mountains. As we talked, someone knocked on the front door. James got it.
“Oh hi! How are you? You know, we actually have your cat!” Lauren was already fast at work stuffing Squeakers into the basket and opening the window.
“Just hold on Squeakers! Everything’s going to be fine, just hold on!”
By the time James reached her to get the cat, the basket was out the window. He ran back to the front door where the neighbor waited, confused. She hadn’t yet been home, and didn’t know her cat had been kidnapped.
“Actually,” James told her, backpedalling, “we don’t have your cat. We just…uh…It was nice talking to you!” When the affair was over we all congregated on the couch. Lauren looked worried.
“I hope little Squeakers is okay,” she said. “She jumped out right when I put the basket out the window.”
We all migrated to the window to see if Squeakers was dead. No trace of a cat was to be seen on the pavement below. No fur, no blood, no tuna. Lauren looked at us. We looked back at her. The moral divide between us grew, as we couldn’t allow ourselves to be associated with a murderer. Finally, at long last, a happy squeak emerged from the neighbor’s downstairs grotto. Squeakers would live to see another day.