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.
Jeff and Amy had given us his phone number in an email, told us we should look him up. As a gift for finishing his Master’s degree in mathematics, Jeff and Amy – both math professors at NAU – brought Alex to Mexico City, and in doing so planted a travel bug that would refuse to die. A few years later he picked up and moved to Lima. Didn’t speak Spanish, no job, no plan, just wanted to do something different.
This is an interesting thing about Alex, but it isn’t the most interesting thing.
Sheena and I were in the process of giving Nacho a deep clean – scrubbing chunks of mystery substance off of the stove, wiping strange and smelly juices from the fridge – when we heard a creak from the front gate of the hostel. Someone entered and we followed the sound of boots on pavement to our sliding door.
“You must be Brad and Sheena. Hi, I’m Alex.” He bore a vague resemblance to Eddie Vedder, but the words poured out of his mouth like smooth molasses, each calming utterance having the bass of distant thunder and the haunting resonance of a well worn vinyl record.
He is a man with the voice of Eddie Vedder; this is the most interesting thing about Alex.
From our hostel we walked the two blocks to the Miraflores waterfront and turned left. Along the boardwalk high above the ocean people zipped around on bikes and rollerblades wearing tights and elbow pads, while youth couples necked on park benches against the ocean backdrop far below. Alex talked about life in Lima, but all I heard was the soothing sound of Pearl Jam.
I wonder if he sings in the shower. If I sounded like Eddie Vedder I’d shower thrice daily just to hear myself sing.
Alex brought us to a nice restaurant nestled in the cliff face, and we found seats on the outdoor patio overlooking the ocean. Portable gas heaters competed with the cool sea breeze wafting up the cliff face as we ate dinner and Alex talked about Peru using his Eddie Vedder voice. After dinner we ambled along the boardwalk.
“If you’re interested,” he said, “I was headed to a friend’s apartment for horror movie night. You guys are welcome to tag along.” Our plans consisted of sitting around in our van and then going to sleep, so this seemed like a great idea by comparison. A few minutes later we were in an elevator climbing to the 16th floor of a waterfront apartment building.
When we arrived, Nightmare on Elm Street was paused onscreen; a sweaty man stared crazy-eyed at a woman, his mouth agape. We chatted with Alex’s friends – all expats from one place or another – and ate microwaveable chicharron. I frequently wandered into the kitchen where, from high above the city, the lights of Lima spread out like a sparkling carpet all the way to the horizon.
Hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, Sheena and I strolled along the boardwalk back to our van. When we had left the apartment, Nightmare on Elm Street was still onscreen, still paused on the scene with the crazy-eyed man. I tried to imagine what it would be like to expatriate to Lima, but my mind was haunted by a voice, like smooth molasses.
In Hippie Bus We trust
As Sheena and I strolled the sidewalk toward the hostel where we were camping in Lima, someone yelled at us.
To our left a 1985 VW Vanagon with a pop top slowly lurked by, the driver leaning out the window. “Are you guys Brad and Sheena?”
We looked at each other, surprised. Last time we checked… “Yes!”
The man with the van turned out to be Miguel, a reader of our blog. He’d first written to us at the start of our trip asking if we’d be passing through Lima.
“I’m on my way to the monthly Westfalia club meeting. Want to follow me over in Nacho?” It was nearly 10PM and we were tired, but when propositioned by a charming stranger in an old van, how could we say no?
We hurried back and got Nacho ready, and then followed Miguel through Lima traffic for 40 minutes to a Burger King parking lot.
After weeks in the mountains among shepherds and small town folk, hanging out with a bunch of Westy fanatics made us feel right at home. We opened up the sliding door and had a Nacho open house. People cycled through, sitting on the couch, taking photos of various things, and asking questions. After a while families coming out of the Burger King started looking at the vans, and a new wave of couch sitters cycled through Nacho.
While Sheena held down the fort I walked around and checked out the other vans. I found myself standing next to a freshly painted 1970’s camper van, listening to the owner recount his recent trip to the mountains.
“I was going up a hill and I noticed some smoke in my side mirror. By the time I pulled there were big flames coming from here.” He pointed to the lower corner of the rear engine hatch. “I used the fire extinguisher, but it didn’t work. Too small. Someone else came by and put the fire out with their extinguisher. He showed me how to do it – you have to point the extinguisher like this…” he pretended to hold a fire extinguisher and aimed it at the engine bay. “Psshhht! Psshhht! Psssshhhhhht! See? Just like that.” Everyone looked at their shoes and solemnly shook their heads. It was as if one of the man’s own beloved children had spontaneously combusted during the road trip.
Westfalia people everywhere, it seems, share a common weak spot for these cars. We give them names, we decorate them, and we spend far too much money on them. We lower our heads when they eventually go up in flames, but then we fix them and give them a fresh coat of paint.