Sep 2012
DISCUSSION 22 Comments

Gun-Toting Contraband Smuggler Man

Although we were having all kinds of fun with family reunions, seeing our friends, eating stuff, and drinking alcoholic beverages, it had come down to game time.  We were home for a reason, and we couldn’t avoid it any longer.  We needed to pick up a transmission, put it in a suitcase, check it onto a plane, and somehow get it through Customs in Colombia without being caught.  Since being home, we had also managed to acquire an eighth grade girl’s weight in other car parts, fishing equipment, clothing, and more car parts.  We knew it would require a great deal of savvy and luck to pull it off, so we trained for it in the only way we knew how; we played horseshoes to hone our precision, and we rode our bikes to build our endurance.  We saw a sign that told us that guns were the source of freedom, which we were going to need, so we got some guns and shot some little clay disks.  We were willing to try anything.

Our first step was to swing by AZ Transaxle and pick up the transmission.  I was pleased to see how shiny and clean it looked; this would play a key role in my ability to lie my way through Customs in the event that I was caught trying to smuggle a used transmission into Colombia.  As you may recall, smuggling such things into Colombia is illegal.

Next, we had to pack it up.  We needed to make it as small as possible so as to fly under the radar of the Colombian Customs agents, and we needed it to be light.  The maximum weight allowed for a checked bag, regardless of how many crisp Benjamins you flash in front of the ticket agent’s face, is 100 pounds.  I decided to remove the bell housing to make it sleek like supermodel, and then build a slim wooden box in its place to protect the input shaft.  With any luck the box would survive a fall from the airplane’s cargo door.  Just to be sure, I wrapped the thing in a whole bunch of bubble wrap.  We didn’t want to sneak through Customs only to discover that we had a trashed transmission again, so we used wood and plastic.  Nature and science.

My original idea had been to try and carry the transmission in my carry-on bag.  Everyone said I was crazy, but it made good sense to me.  First of all, it would save us $350 in overweight baggage fees.  I mean seriously, who has ever had to weigh their carry-on?  All I would have to do is put the transmission in a backpack, and then pretend that the backpack weighed less than 20 pounds so that no official types would think anything was fishy.  Then, I would have to ensure that I could lift the transmission over my head and place it in the overhead compartment, while not leading on that it weighed more than 20 pounds.  And lastly, I would have to hope that the overhead compartment didn’t come crashing down, killing someone’s child.  That would make all of my sneaky heavy lifting effort null and void.  In the end I decided against it, but only for the children.

Finally the day had come.  Sheena went on her merry way to United Airlines carrying two checked bags.  In those bags were many illicit objects, including a transmission bell housing, a new starter, some new LED interior puck lights, new spark plug wires, a clutch master and slave cylinder, a new flyfishing rod, a spare alternator regulator, some new brake lines, and a few other odds and ends.  Her bags were, in short, Customs lightning rods.

In my bags, things were looking no better.  I went off to the Aeromexico counter carrying a transmission, two salvaged rear hub housings made of rusty cast iron, a slightly modified and very rusty catalytic converter, two stub axles, a fancy air filter, a timing light that looked just like a gun, and some corrosive/explosive fluids.  All very used, and all very illegal.  Well, the fluids weren’t used, but they were surely illegal.  My bag containing the transmission ended up weighing 94.5 pounds.  Just under the legal limit.  When the nice Aeromexico ticket agent weighed my bag, she looked rather shocked.  She told me, pity in her eyes, that I owed her $350.  I nicely asked her in her native tongue if she would give me another 20 pounds for free, and she instantly obliged, knocking $100 off of my fee.  Things were going great so far!  Good thing we shot those guns!


The trip to Colombia went off uneventfully.  My stopover in Hermosillo was too short to dart out to the taco stand like last time, but I did manage to gorge myself on tacos on my second stopover in Mexico City.  Poor Sheena ate at an American chain restaurant in Houston, and nothing more.

When I stepped off the plane in Bogota, Sheena was waiting for me at baggage claim.  She already had her bags full of illegal contraband, and waited patiently while I recovered mine.  I found a note on my bag saying that US Customs had seized something from my bag.  I unzipped it in a panic, and quickly found that they had only stolen my brake fluid and the cleaning agent for my new washable K&N air filter.  I zipped it back up, swallowed hard, and Sheena and I coolly walked toward the exit.

“Don’t worry, Sheena,” I said, “I shot a gun before we left.  We will have freedom.”

Everything was going great and soon enough we could see the exit doors; the rays of light streamed through the plate glass like bullets from a freedom gun.  As we approached the Customs agents, a mere 50 feet from the exit doors, I whispered for Sheena to look straight ahead and be cool.  I casually checked my watch, sighed, and pretended to see someone I knew outside.  This gave me a reason not to make eye contact with the agents.  And then, all at once, we were accosted.  An agent stepped in front of us and pointed to the x-ray machine.  His gaze said it all; “I know you’re smugglers, you sons of bitches!”

We pretended it was no big deal, and walked to the x-ray machine with our 244.5 pounds of illegal imports.  Sheena put her bags on the conveyor first, and I helped her stand them on their sides in just such a way, so that the bell housing would be less obvious, and the starter would look less like a bomb.  I hefted my transmission onto the belt next, followed by my hubs, axles, catalytic converter, and gun-like timing light.  I stared at the agent behind the computer, trying to avert her gaze from the screen using extra sensory perception.

Look away … look away … look away … look-

“We have something here! We have something here!”  She looked around, hand in the air, calling for backup.  Sheena and I looked at each other; we had seen Broke Down Castle, and knew that these situations usually ended up with the smugglers spending the rest of their lives in an all-women’s Thai jail.  The agent spun the screen around so I could see it.  Sheena’s bags were still in view, but she was pointing at mine.

“What is this!?” She seemed angry, pointing directly at the transmission.  I tried to think of something quickly that would make her believe that indeed this was not a car part.  Anything but a car part.  If she knew it was a car part, it would be all over.  Our illusion of freedom would disintegrate like the crumbling walls of an all-women’s Thai jail.

“Uh…it’s a car part.”  Doh!  “It’s … um … it’s a transmission for a car.”  Doh!  Doh!

She moved the conveyor, burping Sheena’s illegal contraband out the end.  “These are car parts TOO!”, she said, pointing at my next bag containing a whole gaggle of car parts.  As the woman continued to call for backup, I gave Sheena the nod.  She quickly snatched her bags and speed walked out the door and into the street.  It had only been a few seconds, but I could no longer remember what freedom tasted like.  Whoever made that gun sign was a liar and a moron.

A woman named Alicia, someone I would come to know all too well over the course of my Customs incarceration, led me across the linoleum floor to the DIAN office.  “Everyone fears the DIAN,” Constanza would later tell us.  “They are the IRS of Colombia.  Everybody must pay the DIAN.”

I sat in an uncomfortable chair against the wall while I watched a young man being humiliated by a DIAN agent as he pulled illegal electric motors from his suitcase.  “They are for my father’s business,” he said.  “Your father can’t save you! You’re in DIAN now, son!”  They didn’t say that, but we all knew it was true.  I waited my turn, what seemed like hours.  I would have to get used to waiting, as I was now a common criminal in the Colombian DIAN justice system.  Just another scumbag smuggler, trying to outsmart The Man.

“Car part smuggler? DIAN will deal with you now.”

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Sep 2012
DISCUSSION 10 Comments

No More Dreaming

When we began our quest last January, safely stashed in Nacho’s cabinet was a loaf of banana bread, a few slices of quiche, and my aunt’s cream cheese cutout cookies. The cookies however weren’t shaped in candy canes and Christmas trees like the two dozen times before, but angels and X’s and O’s. And when I ate the last slice of quiche somewhere along the deserted highway on the Baja Coast in Mexico, I had a strange sensation of helplessness, as I realized I was devouring the last tangible piece of home.

Fortunately the mind is strong. The sensations, emotions, and experiences tied to this place we call home are abundant, and within a split second, you can be home.

At least in your mind.

When I close my eyes, I am back at the doorstep on Skyline drive. In the foreground, Black Mountain rises high in the crisp blue sky. The smell of desert rain is irresistibly and deliciously potent, and from every direction, the long reaching shadows of saguaros paint the volcanic rock. Rabbits and families of quail scurry through the cholla cactus and aloe vera patches. And inside, saltillo tiles lead to the kitchen and the aroma of banana bread from the oven gloriously chokes the air.

And then there’s my other home, two hours North, which rises high above the desert. Here, the pine forest stretches for as far as the eye can see. This time, the San Francisco Peaks are in the foreground. When I step outside of our dollhouse in the valley, I stand frozen in time, so fortunate to be spying on the massive herd of elk bugling on the hillside. I run alongside the river, flowers in bloom, briefly stopping at the pond to catch my breath and to watch the mother duck and her trail of babies, bottoms up, scanning through the depths of the water for food.

Fortunately, in July I didn’t have to dream anymore. Our impromptu trip home landed us back in Brad’s home town of Prescott just in time for the 4th of July festivities. Brad’s family and mine gathered in masses, grilling up hot dogs, burgers, and corn on the cob. In true Southwest fashion, mounds of guacamole, spicy salsa, tortilla chips, and many salt rimmed margaritas lined the flagstone countertop.

Farther down the desolate back roads in Prescott, more relatives spoiled us with their delightful food.

July was also the perfect time to visit the Red Rocks of Sedona and the overflowing blackberry bushes that lined Oak Creek. After a wonderful day of mountain biking, Brad and our good friend Mike insisted they could catch us ladies (Lauren and I) some trout. In return for their hard labor we’d make them a blackberry pie and fudge. While they fished, we put on our pants and long sleeved shirts, ready to put in a good fight with the massive web of thorny bushes. We laid down planks of wood through the bushes, gaining us access through the mess until we left in victory, bowls full of lusciously ripe blackberries. Needless to say, no trout arrived back at the house; however we did gorge ourselves on blackberry pie (recipe).

Back in the desert, my bucket lists of things to eat was satisfied in its entirety. Brad’s was too. His only request was that we make it to Barro’s Pizza. History took place here for the two of us. It seemed like a decade ago, and in actuality it was. During high school he’d come in and watch me work while dipping his fat slices of pepperoni pizza into ranch dressing.

And finally, my mom slaved away in the kitchen, cooking up batches of banana bread, quiche, and French toast. Most certainly, if I were to make a cookbook of family recipes, these would easily be the top three. I curiously wondered what foods made home “home” for other people. So, I asked Brad. Chiliquiles from Martannes, the curries at the Himalayan grill, our homemade burgers and daily cappuccinos.

Our trip back home fulfilled us in so many ways. Truly, the food came nowhere close to the enjoyment we received by visiting with friends and family. We never know where life will take us and what circumstances, both good and bad will arise in the future.

Cindy, many X’s and O’s back at you, and may you have many angels watching over you as well.


Banana Bread
Yield: 1 loaf of banana bread

1/3 cup Crisco (or butter)
½ cup turbinado sugar (white works fine as well)
2 eggs
1 ¾ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup mashed banana (the riper the better)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a baking pan, coat the sides with butter or Pam.
In a large bowl, mix Crisco, sugar and eggs together. Next, add the mashed banana.
In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients together.
Combine the dry ingredients in with the wet ingredients. Pour the batter into the bread pan.
Lick the bowl clean, preferably with a spatula or spoon. This batter is not to be wasted.
Cook for 45 minutes, or until you can poke the bread with a toothpick and it comes out clean.
Let cool on a baking rack. Slice and slather in butter!


Yield: 1 pie

1 cup of half and half
3 eggs
2 teaspoons of flour
½ teaspoons of salt
¼ cup of cheddar
Spinach (1 frozen package)
2 chicken breast (boiled and shredded)
1 prepackaged Pie crust
2 slices of swiss cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a bowl, mix together half and half, eggs, flour, and salt. Set aside.
Line the bottom of the pie crust with swiss cheese. Next, add the spinach evenly over the cheese.
Add the shredded chicken on top of the spinach, stopping when the chicken is level with the pie crust.
Pour the egg mixture lastly, stopping when the mixture has come close to the top edge of the pie crust.
Sprinkle with cheddar cheese.
Cook in the oven for 45 minutes or until the egg mixture is cooked through and top has browned.


Challah bread French Toast
Yield: 12 slices

1 loaf of challah bread (egg based bread)
Canola oil
1 teaspoon of Cinnamon
A few pinches Nutmeg
2 teaspoons of Vanilla
8 eggs
Whole milk (about 1 cup)
Powdered sugar

Thickly slice the challah bread and leave out for a few hours. This allows the bread to dry out, better absorbing the batter. In a bowl, add the eggs. Pour in the milk, stopping when the milk to egg ratio is 1:1 (about a cup of milk).
Add cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. Mix well.
Dip each slice of bread into the mixture and set aside.
In a griddle, pour an incredibly healthy dose of canola oil and heat to medium high.
Place the bread in the griddle and let cook on each side for 4-5 minutes, or until brown and crispy.
Sprinkle each side with cinnamon and sugar.
Before serving, sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve with maple syrup, or Brad’s favorite, plain yogurt and brown sugar.

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Aug 2012
DISCUSSION 10 Comments

The Great White North

Standing on a granite boulder in the middle of the creek, my neon green flyline whipped back and forth in ten-and-two motions overhead. In one final throw, I set the fly upstream of a large boulder and let the current carry it past what was sure to be an underwater lair filled with hungry fish. Moments later my line was taut, having coaxed a large native brown trout out from under the boulder. After a short battle, it jerked hard and broke my line. Sheena and Lauren had given us one mandate before we stepped out the door: bring back enough trout to eat for dinner. After two hours of fishing in Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon, we had managed to catch and release a couple dozen six inchers, and the one edible-sized one had gotten away.

Later, while standing downstream of the bridge to Garland’s Cabins, a vacationing Mexican family walked past me and stopped to watch. I put a halt to my unfruitful fishing and excitedly recounted to them how we had left Mexico five months ago, and that I had spent every night since then crying myself to sleep thinking about the Mexican food we’d left behind.

I told them how on my recent flight home I had stopped over in Hermosillo, Mexico, with only one thing on my mind. I recounted how after the plane had landed, I had bolted away from the airport on foot, how the heat had enveloped me as I left the terminal, and how the air smelled like nostalgia. I was alone; for reasons not worth mentioning Sheena was on a different flight. Despite the absence of my navigator, I knew where to find my fix. I ducked into the first neighborhood I came across looking for a dealer who could feed my addiction. I wandered only a short time before finding what had been haunting my dreams, like a crack addict finding his next fix. As I approached the open air taco stand the husband, wife, and son were just setting up for the day. It was eight o’clock in the morning, the crock pots of beef and pork let off a hint of chili-scented steam. I dropped my backpack and melted into a familiar red plastic chair. A fly buzzed around the table, and the wife started slapping dough between her hands to form the fresh tortillas that would be the foundation for the many tacos on which I would gorge myself. The endorphins coursing through my veins put me into a stationary runner’s high. True happiness, I told the family as they sat on the bridge straddling Oak Creek, is a Mexican taco stand.

We returned empty handed to Mike and Lauren’s cabin on the banks of Oak Creek. Fortunately, Lauren was an avid reader of our blog, and knew that this would happen. She and Sheena had gone to the store while we were out, and nodded an unsurprised nod as we came through the door with nothing but our fishing rods. Without grocery stores we would have starved to death long ago.

A few days before hopping on the plane in Bogotá, we had put the word out on our Facebook page that we were looking for a car to use for a month to travel between the corners of our eje familiar; our families and friends were scattered between three locations in Arizona: Phoenix, Prescott, and Flagstaff. A few hours later, my good friend Brian – the one who introduced me to mountain biking in 7th grade, whose family had been good friends since elementary school, and whose sisters would host us in our final stop before crossing the border into Mexico at the onset of our trip – offered up his car. “No problem, I’ll just ride my motorcycle for the month,” he said.

With gas in our little car and freedom in our little hearts, we set off from Phoenix to the Great White North: our adopted hometown of Flagstaff. After a quick and, of all the excellent establishments we could have chosen, utterly unexplainable stop at Carl’s Junior, we knocked on the door of our good friends Brigit and Bret. We had crashed at their downtown home for the week prior to our departure, and when we arrived our room was just as we had left it; the same books were stacked on the desk, and the Flight of the Concords poster hung inanimately on the wall next to the bed. Bret, a magician when it comes to baking, hastily got to work making a fresh batch of his famous chocolate chip cookies.

In an uncanny display of perfect timing, we had arrived in Flagstaff just in time for the annual Clips of Faith festival; an outdoor gathering to celebrate brews and short films put on by New Belgium Brewing Company. Accompanied by our friends Nathan and Claire we made our way over to the park, bought a handful of wooden tokens, and passed the evening sipping remarkable beer, catching up with friends, and being entertained by this year’s selection of short films.

Fittingly, the last film of the evening was one we came across a couple of months ago, which puts into words and images our feelings about the importance of doing the trip we’re currently doing. Car trouble be damned, we’re doing the right thing.

The day after Clips of Faith we decided to continue the celebration. Being that the New Belgium crew was already in town, we threw together a beer tasting at Nathan’s house and invited some of the New Belgium crew. Nathan supplied a few bottles from a recent business trip to the East coast, while Grant, a New Belgium sales rep, supplied several experimental New Belgium brews and an especially rare and expensive bottle of 2002 Stone Vertical Epic, of which he had found an entire case buried in his garage. Matt, a brewer from New Belgium, spent the evening ensuring that our palates were well calibrated to the treats he expertly brewed up back in Fort Collins.

Before we started eight months ago, Nathan had brewed a special batch of Belgian Quadrupel for us; a beer he called World Wide Quadrupel. We took a case of it on our trip, temporarily occupying our toilet paper cabinet. After being hounded for a very long time by friends and fans of his beer, he finally pulled the trigger and decided to start a microbrewery. We dropped by the brewery to see how things were progressing, and found the place full of equipment, ready to be plumbed together into a beer wonderland. If all goes well, Wanderlust Brewing Company should be distributing in Arizona within the next couple of months. With the goodness he’s about to unleash on the world, Nathan is soon to be, I don’t know, the fifth most famous person I know.

The sixth most famous person I know is Delia Withey. There exists a natural foods brand called Annie’s Organics. Annie, as it turns out, is Delia’s aunt. When Delia was but a wee child, she had a rabbit named Bernie. Buyers of Annie’s foods will know that all Annie’s products come adorned with a stamp on the package depicting a rabbit. This is “Bernie’s Stamp of Approval”. Delia’s childhood pet is thus depicted on millions of boxes of Annie’s Organics, making Delia the sixth most famous person I know.

We spent our time in Flagstaff catching up with good friends and eating good food. We paid the exorbitant and shocking price of $18 for a hamburger and a drink at Diablo Burger, had the world’s best breakfast burritos at Tacos Los Altos, induced food coma over a plate of Fratelliquiles at Martanne’s, and gave ourselves wasabi headrushes at Karma Sushi. See the girl second from the right in the first picture below? That’s Delia. She’s the sixth most famous person I know.

The climax of our “Reacquainting with Long Forgotten Foods of Home” tour was a visit to our favorite restaurant, the Himalayan Grill. Arriving for dinner was like coming home from war; Ramesh welcomed us with a huge smile, Jit came out of the kitchen to chat and hear about our trip, and Karan and Jyotsna told us all about their newborn son. Ramesh brought me a beer from a local brewery, and Karan made Sheena a melon flavored coctail, which he delivered with a huge smile. “I always wanted to be a bartender in New York when I was growing up. This is a drink I made up.” The food, as usual, was awesome.

As we headed for the door, Ramesh corralled us into the bar and sat us down. “We must drink a toast!” Several shots of tequila and rum later, we were fully toasted and ready to walk home. As I clambered out of the bar to pay for our meal, Ramesh waved his hand. “We’re glad to see you, it’s on the house!” He then reached behind the register and produced a bag containing two dinners to go; Sheena’s favorite: saag paneer. “Now you don’t have to cook tomorrow,” he said, as he whisked us out the door. Some people just exude awesomeness.

After the first couple of weeks at home it was clear that the fourth option was the right one. I was enjoying a much needed respite from Vanagon maintenance and transmission problems, and a steady diet comprising mostly Mexican food had put a temporary end to me crying myself to sleep. While it is no exaggeration that true happiness is a Mexican taco stand, there is no denying the fact that no number of taco stands can rival the happiness that time spent with friends and family can deliver. Now, if only traveling halfway across a hemisphere could heal a man’s inability to catch a fish worthy of eating.

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Mar 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

Monthly Summary – February 2012

Month number two is in the books!  First, a look at the numbers.  Second, some evangelism.  Next: goodbye North America, hello Central America!

Countries driven: Mexico

Miles driven: 1,772  (Trip Total = 4,735; odometer reads 281,235)

Total bribes paid: 0  (Trip Total = 0)

Total Spent: $1,934 ($66.69/day)

Retrospective Thoughts On Mexico:

I’m going to be straight with you.  In America, our news outlets are all about sensationalism.  If there isn’t anything outrageously bad to report on, they’ll revisit the terrible, heinous crimes from last month.  This sensationalist attitude means that all you ever hear about Mexico is a continuous stream of negativity;  terrible stories about kidnapping, dismemberment, and murders that occur due to the movement of drugs northward to satisfy America’s own lust for illicit drugs.  Furthermore, everyone has heard about a friend of a friend with a corrupt cop story.  Let’s face it, Mexico gets a bad rap north of the border.

Before we left on our trip, people used to ask us how much money we were budgeting per day for bribes.  PER DAY!  After two months and 4,735 miles on the road in Mexico, we were never so much as pulled over by the police.  We stopped at countless police and military checkpoints, but were met with nothing but smiles and friendly small talk.  The police, by and large, aren’t crooked.  Foreigners who get pulled over and then offer bribes to “make it go away” are the real issue, as they create the false impression that foreigners are stupid, and will part with their money at the drop of a hat.  Treat them with respect and they’ll do the same for you.

As for the extreme danger due to the war on drugs, it never even crossed our minds outside of wondering “what is the media talking about?”  It never came up.  Not in a conversation, not out of the corner of our eye, never.  We felt silly safe every second of every day.  Well, except for that strange day in Chamula, but that was different.  In short, America is missing out on experiencing a truly wonderful country to its immediate south due to little more than media fear mongering.  If I sound dumbfounded, it’s because I am.  Should Europeans avoid travel to America because of gang violence in Los Angeles?  Well, unless they’re a member of a Los Angeles based gang, I’d say they have nothing to worry about.  If the Mexican media reported on every single murder in the USA, they’d be scared to death too.

In Mexico, almost every day was an absolute treasure.  The people we met were unfathomably kind, the weather was incredible, the food was life changing, and we feel that we’ve become better people for our experiences there.  In the people we found a warmth and sincerity that we’ve never felt on such a universal scale.  No longer do we dare pass someone on the street without greeting them with a smile and a “buenos dias”.  Whenever someone passes us on their way out the door of a restaurant, they invariably smile at us and say “provecho”.  Enjoy.  Not just every once in a while, I’m talking about every time.  Entire families will say this to us in turn as they pass.  Even tough-looking teenagers.  Mexico has taught us manners.

If you’ve considered going to Mexico, but have been dissuaded because of the supposed danger, stop worrying.  Just go.  You’re more likely to die from a freak vending machine accident than you are to die from drug-related violence in Mexico.  After two months, we’ve decided that the country really deserves six months in order to discover all that it has to offer.  And as you’ve seen from this monthly summary and the last, it’s cheaper to travel in Mexico than it is to stay home.  Now go and write a harshly worded letter to your local media station and tell them to be more positive.  But don’t forget to say “buenos dias” first.

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Mar 2012

Blog, North America


Yucatan Training Plan

As we coasted at 80 mph on well tended roads into the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico was essentially behind us.  It was time to start our training.  After two long months in Mexico we were almost to the Caribbean.  Before entering Belize though, we had to practice laying around in hammocks, counting sand, and painstakingly ensuring that our tans were just the right touch of scorched paste.  We decided that our first stop would be Tulum.

We found a campground on the beach and quickly got to work on our new training regimen.  Sheena tested the hammock- sadly the first time we’ve pulled it out on this trip.  Meanwhile I strutted around without a shirt, and later we both went snorkeling before retiring to the beach for a lounge.  Our first day of Caribbean training was tough, but we survived.


Bright and early the next day we made it out to the Mayan ruins perched on a short cliff by the sea.  They sure had a knack for choosing nice settings, but the ruins themselves were a far cry from the epic ruins at Palenque.  All of the buildings were roped off, and the magnitude of the place was much smaller than our last stop.  Still, we had a really nice time walking around.

With some laziness practice under our belts we headed South.  We had to hurry up and act really lazy before leaving the Yucatan and putting our preparation to the test.  The perfect place it seemed, would be a small town that we’d seen on the way to Tulum.  The town of Bacalar sat on the shores of a clear fresh water lagoon with a nice clean white sandy bottom, only a few miles from the Belizean border.  We found a campsite right on the shore in a grassy lot.  Later we would discover that our lot was in the territory of a queen ant who decided to lay thousands of babies inside of Nacho, but who the hell could have seen that coming?

Over the ensuing couple of days we really did our best to get in some last minute relaxation training for Belize.  We practiced the essentials: paddleboarding, swimming, regular dock diving, shrimp eating, hands-clasped-behind-the-back dock diving, strutting, muscle flexing, and flipping water with our hair.

We found Bacalar to be very enjoyable and laid back.  It seemed most of the sun-seekers had skipped over it en route to the more popular Caribbean beaches farther east on the Yucatan.  The visitors we met here were primarily Mexicans on vacation.  We even ran into our first couple of Mennonite families; a group that has fairly extensive presence in Belize.  We weren’t really prepared to see people dressed like characters from Little House on the Prairie eating seafood at waterfront thatched huts.  We continually caught ourselves staring at them, analyzing their every move.  This was one thing that our extensive training program hadn’t prepared us for.

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Mar 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 14 Comments

Happy Barfday To You!

At about 4:30 AM, Sheena woke me up in a frantic scurry.  With firefighter speed she exited the sheets, swung her legs over the edge of the upper bed, and dropped into Nacho’s downstairs living quarters.  She was sick in a bad way.  As I lay there with my ears plugged, I thought to myself “Poor little lady.  And on her birthday of all days.”

Once per year it’s up to me to turn an otherwise mundane day into a fantastic one.  Instead of sitting at home in the snow, we go to the deer farm and risk getting Lyme disease while petting the mangy deer.  Or we play hooky from work and drive up the hill to the Arizona Snowbowl for a day of skiing.  Today was no exception; I had stealthily sneaked to the cake shop in San Cristobal and bought a tres leches cake, and had successfully hidden it from Sheena.   I had planned a day of wonder, as I do every year.  “Just take some Pepto,” I told her.  “Everything will be just fine.”

Once Sheena had composed herself, we converted Nacho from living machine into driving machine and hit the road to the East.  Palenque was 130 miles away, so I figured we could make it in a few hours tops.  A few kilometers from Palenque we would stop at the Misol-Ha waterfall for Sheena’s birthday celebration.  It was to be so grand.

The road out of San Cristobal took us through incredible jagged mountains dotted with tiny Mayan villages, which, given the backdrop, looked like what I imagine one might see in the Nepalese Himalayas.  The first half of the drive was through pine forests, while the second half was through jungle.  Occasionally we came across short men carrying enormous loads of firewood out of the forest on their backs using slings wrapped around their foreheads.  Often men and women would be raking out coffee beans on tarps on the roadside as the beans dried in the sun.

In my driving time calculation I had failed to account for one thing: topes.  The ubiquitous Mexican speed bumps were placed approximately every quarter mile on the 130 mile road from San Cristobal to Palenque.  And in between the speed bumps the road would mysteriously be missing, fallen off the side of the cliff.  Several times we came upon sections of road where literally half of the road had slid off the cliff, leaving a jagged hole.  Where the road hadn’t fallen away, it was littered with sink holes in the pavement where it would soon fall off.  The 130 mile trip took us 6 hours.  But boy was it beautiful!

We arrived at Misol-Ha in the early afternoon and went down by the water for birthday cake.  Sheena, being sick, was surprised about the tres leches, but wasn’t exactly in the mood to stuff her face.  After a spot of cake we went for a swim.  The falls cascaded over the edge of a cliff and fell 100 feet into a large pool.  A pathway led around the back of the falls to a subterranean river cave.  Or, if you were totally hardcore extreme like Sheena and me, you would swim across the water to the cave.  Only if you have enough Red Bull, though.

While we swam in the pool at the base of the waterfall, tour buses made frequent stops at the falls.  A line of tourists would file into the area around the pool, then go behind the falls and take a bunch of pictures.  After a while we started to notice trends in the tourists’ photos.  It seemed that nobody could take a normal photo; rather, the person having their photo taken would spread their arms really wide and make a goofy smile (the most common), or else they would jump in the air (another favorite).  Group photos often involved several strange poses, or sometimes everyone in the group would open their arms really wide as if trying to grasp the entire place in their embrace.  We became intoxicated with this phenomenon, and eventually decided to take a few of our own, mimicking the poses we’d seen. Here are a few of our favorites.

At Palenque, a few kilometers away, we found a campsite within walking distance of the Mayan archeological site.  The area was thick with jungle, and our campsite sat in a small clearing in the trees.  As night fell, howler monkeys surrounded us and broke into their ritual noisemaking.  As we sat listening to the monkeys, fireflies pulsated in the grass next to us.  I took this audio recording of the monkeys; they were so loud that it was nearly impossible to fall asleep.

[audio:http://www.drivenachodrive.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Howler-Monkeys-in-Palenque.mp3|titles=Howler Monkeys in Palenque]

In the morning we strolled over to the archaeological site.  From the depths of the thick jungle a whole ancient Mayan community had been uncovered, including temples, a palace, residential areas, and a canal.  We spent the better part of a day exploring.  This site, unlike many of the more widely visited sites in Mexico, still allows visitors to climb up the temple stairs, go inside the tombs, and explore at will.

And so the next day, in the way we do, we got back into Nacho and with firefighter speed we made way for the Yucatan peninsula.  Our last stop in Mexico.


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Mar 2012

Blog, North America


San Cristóbal and the Babies

For a while I’ve been wondering what baby gifts we should get for our friends Jen and Eric, who are expecting twin girls soon.  You could say I don’t really “get” kids. When I speak to them I use long multisyllabic words, I assume that they want to talk about politics, or I force them to sit through my soapbox monologues about the intricacies of proper espresso preparation.  It was thus with great joy that I discovered the two perfect gifts for Jen and Eric’s future daughters while strolling around the artisan market in San Cristobal de las Casas.

The first thing I found was this great little handmade wool monkey.  It’s a mother hugging its baby.  It seemed like a gift that would remind child #1, we’ll call her Guadalupe, that her mother, like this monkey, is a caregiver.  I don’t know a damn thing about kids, but it seems like little Guadalupe will benefit from a constant reminder that her mother will give her a hug when she gets sad about petty injustices, or whatever it is that kids get sad about.

Later I was walking by a market stall when this next gem caught my eye.  For child #2, we’ll call her Wanda, I couldn’t pass up this handsome wool figurine of the masked leader of the Zapatista rebels, Subcomandante Marcos.  He wears a black ski mask over his face and carries a camouflaged rucksack on his back to aid in his survival while camping in the mountains. His cute little wool hands tightly clasp a Kalashnikov machine gun.  In times of despair, little Wanda can look at her Subcomandante Marcos doll and find solace in the idea that one day the evils of globalization will be put down and the mountain villages of Chiapas will once again thrive.

There you go Jen and Eric.  Let me know if you ever need a babysitter when we’re done with our trip.  I’m sure I can come up with a well thought out lecture to deliver while you two go out for a nice dinner.

San Cristobal de las Casas was a beautiful town, and one of our favorites yet in Mexico.  It’s mountain location in a pine forest at 7,200 feet, roughly the same elevation as Flagstaff, made us feel at home.  Walking through the cobbled streets, through the brightly colored buildings and ample open air markets, we encountered a great number of women and children dressed in traditional Mayan clothing.  Women wore long skirts made of black goat hide still thick with unruly goat fur, and brightly colored cardigans.  Every Mayan girl over the age of 15 or so had at least one baby in tow.

We found a campsite within walking distance of downtown, yet still tucked away in the trees at the base of the hills.  By day we wandered the town streets or took short trips to the surrounding villages (like the last post), while in the evenings we fell asleep to the sound of crickets.  We spent one evening chatting with a couple from Switzerland who are on their way north from Argentina to the United States.  So far we’ve met at least a dozen groups of Europeans doing this route, but pretty much nobody else seems to be heading south like us.

After a few days in San Cristobal, the ocean started calling to us.   The surfboards were looking a little parched and the fishing poles still longed to be used for their intended purpose.  And with that, we loaded up Nacho, secured our baby warming gifts, and headed east.  Someplace warm.  A place where the beer flows like wine. Where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano. I’m talking about a little place called Palenque.


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