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.
While downshifting a gear to a cruising pace, every three-wheeled rickshaw driver asked me the same question. While taking a tour of the coast in a spectacular dual toned rickshaw piqued my interest, what was more appealing was watching them go by. The plethora and odd arrangement of decals was mind boggling; dripping flames, cartoon characters, sports logos, marijuana leaves, Jesus heads, and batman-shaped windows, tinted in black plastic to hide the backseat passengers. A slight squint in the eyes and shake of the head was understood as a no thanks. It never hurts to ask I suppose.
No, today I couldn’t be distracted by water and beaches. I had my fun the day before, peering into the strange obsessive sex lives and ritualistic ways of blue footed boobies. These birds were more obsessed with mating than a class of high school boys. Where there was a female, a male was standing obnoxiously in front of her, flaunting his beautiful blue feet by raising one foot and then the other. The female didn’t seem to pay any attention; however she was beyond shallow, eventually choosing the male whose feet were the richest in azure hue. There were many duos between males involving lifting their sharp pointed bills toward the sky and blowing out a high pitched whistle, while outstretching their wings, frantically attempting to display their dominance.
I never saw a female pick a winner, but I did see many soon-to-be mothers incubating their eggs. This was interesting as well, as instead of laying her eggs in a nest, she would defecate in such extreme quantities, that essentially a nest was created of guano. This protected her eggs from bugs and made her nest visible from above.
Off in the ocean waters, you could see blue footed boobies dive bombing straight into the ocean, funneling through the water and devouring off-guard fish. As intense as they were, their lives were short lived. Dive bombing into the ocean blue slowly destroyed their eyesight, leading to an eventual heart-stopping suicide involving a cliff wall or tree.
Today was an unusual day. In the wee hours of the morning, Brad rolled out of bed without me, and ventured off to catch the early bus to Guayaquil in search of a brake master cylinder. For the second time since our trip started, Brad and I were separating for more than the length of an average 9 to 5 work day. This used to be the norm five days a week, now one day apart seemed like infinity. I was left to fend for myself on the beaches of Puerto Lopez.
Nervously, I set out to the market with a simple task for the day, a photographic challenge if you will. The challenge was given to me by a friend; take photos of cooks preparing their food. Easy enough, if you remove from the equation the part where I am shy and horrendous at the Spanish language.
Like many markets, it was a few blocks from the restaurantes turisticos, tour agencies and typical souvenir shops selling woven baskets, sarongs, and keychains. This one was a fabulous open air market, with a few messy but organized comedores. Under a tarped area, dozens of plastic tables and chairs were sprawled out, no clear distinction between one joint to the next except for what kind of salsa sat as the centerpiece. No chalkboards or menus identified the meal of the day; you just had to sit down and wait for the news. It didn’t really matter anyway, they were all nearly identical. Women were surrounded by pots and pans, pushing out food in courses: a brothy soup, then a typical plate of meat, rice, lentils, and plantain chips or patacones, and lastly a cup of juice.
Around the corner, under corrugated metal roofs, If you are wondering why metal roofs, more on this right here. Chamomile flowers were in bundles and women sat on buckets shelling peas, surrounded in a pyramid of colors.
One young shop worker, blinged out in t-shirt imprinted with a faux diamond necklace, flexed his biceps at me as I bought a bundle of spinach reminiscent of a pile of wilted weeds. While flashing a grin, he reported, “Spinach is very good for you. I eat it every day because it makes me VERY strong”. Yes, he looked just like the Latin American version of Popeye.
One of the things I love most about Latin Americans is their incredible creativity. If you can’t afford a fence, make a wall of tumbleweeds and branches to keep the sheep in. If you don’t have a car, chop a rusted out 40-year old bike in half and replace the front with a huge cart and two wheels. No need for handlebars, just grab the front of your cart and start the thigh burning motion of moving the mass forward. These utilitarian bikes (and motorcycles if you had the cash) were second in popularity to the rickshaws. They were loved and used for every perceivable task: delivering propane tanks, glass bottles, moving garbage, carrying people, and selling food. Each one was customized a bit in layout, but the food stands were generally half tabletop and half grill, sometimes with a fancy striped patio umbrella; for ambiance I would imagine.
As evening approached, I left the market with a bag full of food: chorizo, coconut balls, mashed balls of cooked plantain, fry bread filled with cheese, and a few pinches more of confidence than when I started the day. Task accomplished.
The following day, with my honey back at my side, we cruised on out of Ecuador and into Peru. As we wound through the mountains, I spotted a pig dressed as superman. He surely would have tripped on his plaid, baby blue cape if he was skipping along to a mud puddle. However he sat propped up on the table with his eyes closed next to a black charred wok, filled with delightfully juicy chunks of pork.
“I’ll have some pig please”.
The woman lifted the cape of the pig and sliced off a chunk of its back, scooped a few chunks of pork from the wok, and layered the plate with corn, pork, and onion. It was heaven, I promise.
As we continued down the road, I fed Brad like a baby, placing chunks of meat into his open mouth as he drove. As we continued on, my mind drifted to how at home you’d never find the food so exposed. Our meat is cut behind swinging closed doors, packaged in rectangular foam plates, wrapped in saran wrap and marked with an expiration date. On more than one occasion in Latin-America I’ve watched a family take the life of one of its livestock. To them, it was an occasion and a moment to celebrate their fortune, no foam rectangles or saran wrap in sight.
As we crossed into Peru, things got hectic fast. Nacho was like the white sheep being funneled down the killing chute, engulfed in a mass of pedestrians, rickshaws, carts, and stands.
The following day we were heat exhausted and starving, driving through the vast desert and nothingness of Northern Peru.
We spotted a comedor in the distance. As we sat down on the wooden bench, a single slab of jerky-like meat wavered in the air, hanging from a bare rusted wire strung up between two beams. Carne seca: it’s what’s for lunch.
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The fishing boats didn’t go all that far from shore, perhaps a quarter of a mile, to a line where the sea turned from light to dark. A shelf, most likely, where the sea floor dropped off to greater depths. I sat on my knees on the paddleboard, paddling for all I was worth to get through the surf break without being toppled. In my back pocket I carried the hand line I’d rigged up; to a locking carabiner I had tied a 120lb fishing line about 20 feet long. To the end of the leader I tied a heavy duty hook, and on it I attached the only bait I could find in the van: a hunk of Swiss-style sausage.
I wasn’t interested in those hipster vegan fish. No, I was interested in the man-eaters. The kind of fish that require a 120lb fishing line and a locking carabiner; one that would be interested in eating manly nuggets of mystery meat stuffed into a piece of pig intestine. Of course a fish like this, or a shark for that matter, could easily drown me and take my paddleboard with it. For this reason I would attach the carabiner to a bungee cord, which would in turn be attached to my board. I had my dive knife at the ready for the emergency cut-and-swim.
After passing through the surf break the water became more gentle. I stood up and paddled out to sea, past the line where the water turned from light to dark. I took out my hand line, unraveled the leader and dropped the bait into the water. The line unraveled through my fingers until it was taut, and then I clipped the carabiner to my bungee cord and sat back to enjoy the warm Ecuadorian morning. For a while I sat with my legs dangling off one side of the board, and then I laid down on my back and closed my eyes. As I lay there on the board, the water gently rocking me with each passing wave, I considered the depth of the water below me. I thought about the distance these waves had traveled, and the distance we, ourselves, had traveled. Twenty feet below, the Swiss-style sausage dangled at the edge of an oceanic abyss, taunting the passing fish. A quarter mile away, life in Canoa ticked by at a relaxed pace along dirt streets. Ten thousand miles away life went on at home without us. Sheena, unable to see me lying down, wondered if I’d been pulled under by a Great White.
After nearly an hour, I figured I should come back and let Sheena know I was still alive. I rolled up my hand line, threw the sausage overboard, and headed back toward the surf. As I approached the shore I was repeatedly pummeled by set waves, which, as usual, nearly drowned me. By the time I reached shore my hand line had become unraveled and I was lucky not to have been killed by my supersized man-eater fishing hook. Sheena, content that I was still alive, went back to reading her book in her lawn chair in the sand.
The following day, while descending the coastal road through a cloud forest toward Puerto Lopez, our brakes decided they’d had it. I gently depressed the brake pedal coming around a curve, and it gently traveled all the way to the floor. The ensuing panic-stomp did the trick, effectively jerking Nacho to a slower speed. I’d stumbled upon the temporary fix, allowing us to travel the rest of the way to our destination; every time I wanted to slow down, I had to do a panic-stomp on the brake pedal. Failed brake master cylinder. Damn. More of that emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance would be required.
We pulled into Puerto Lopez and drove the main road along the water until we had left downtown, jerking to an abrupt panic stop before each speed bump. A few hundred meters outside of town we found a nice spot to camp on the beach and panic-stopped into a serene location overlooking the bay. We poured rum into two glasses and topped them up with Coke that had been chilling in the freezer, and then sunk back on the couch to listen to the waves. Outside of our screen door the sailboats and fishing vessels bobbed in front of the lights from the bay while a cool sea breeze filled our small living room.
Having scored the best free beach front property in all of Ecuador, we weren’t in a hurry to move on. The following morning we ignored our Vanagon maintenance woes and opted instead to go in search of boobies. It was Sheena’s idea. “Let’s just enjoy the beach,” I’d say. “No! I want to go to the island of boobies!” She was relentless. Of course we’re talking about birds here – the elusive Blue-Footed Booby. La Isla de la Plata was only a 45 minute boat ride away and was said to be loaded with the little monsters.
At the port we found our fiberglass shell of a tour boat waiting, beached like a dead whale. Our captain played it cool and asked all of the chaps from the group to come and help him get it free. Twenty minutes and several strained backs later, we were putting Northwesterly. When, halfway to the island, the engine failed, all I could do was smile. I watched as the captain and his two helpers wrenched on it for a few minutes, and then switched to watching the panic grow in the other passengers’ eyes. I was just happy to see someone else behind the wrench for a change. We finally got on our way when I noticed another layer of ricketyness to our boat; one of the helpers’ jobs was to steer the boat by holding his foot on the outboard motor. When the captain needed to turn, he would yell at the boy, who would push the motor a little with his bare foot.
“All right everybody, there are four hikes we can do,” our guide said. We had disembarked and were gathered around the map of the hiking trails around the island. “The map, you see, is backward. You have to flip it like this. The printer made it backwards. There are four hikes, my fraings.” For some reason Latin-American guides always say “my friends”, but pronounce it “my fraings”. Every time I hear it I think of John McCain.
“This hike is very far away, so nobody likes it.” He swirled his hand over the blue line. “This one is very boring, you no see any boobies or frigates. This one boobies, but only frigates flying. This one is shortest, but has boobies and frigates, my fraings.” It was clear that our guide wanted to do the shortest hike. The island was no more than a half of a square mile, so no hike was really all that long. “So my fraings, we will do the short boobie and frigate hike?” We nodded.
The trail wound through a dry wash and up the side of a small mountain covered in palo santo trees, and punctuated by thickets of luffa bushes; yes, luffa as in “luffa sponge”. Luffa sponges grow on bushes inside of huge spiky seeds.
“These are luffa sponges, my fraings. They make your face so soft, my fraings.” Our guide mimed washing his face with one of the sponges.
Throughout the hike we dodged blue-footed boobies and red-breasted frigates perched in the trail and all over the surrounding cliffs and trees. I kept myself entertained by proclaiming “Look! Red-breasted frigate!” using my best nerdy birder lisp every time I saw one. I’m 29, but I’m not above acting like a 12 year old. Just ask Sheena.
Back on the boat it was time to head back to the mainland, but not before partaking of the second part of our tour: snorkeling at the island.
“My fraings,” our guide announced, “It is time for snorkeling.” He glanced over his shoulder at the water and the white sandy beach. “You will have one hour to snorkel. There are many fishes and corals to see. ” We all nodded in anticipation. “But as you can see the water is very cold. It may make you sick from the cold. The wind is also blowing. So you will not have any fun. Maybe today is not the day for snorkeling. Does anyone want to snorkel?” We peered around at the group, now completely turned off by the idea of snorkeling, and fearful for their health. Not wanting to be the only ones swimming in the arctic cold water with the deadly wind making us sick, we kept quiet as the boat sputtered to life and stammered out to sea.
On the way back to Puerto Lopez our boat ran out of gas. Again we were stuck, the other passengers fretted, and I couldn’t wipe the ridiculous smile off of my face. After replacing your own transmission on a high mountain Colombian farm, there’s nothing more satisfying than watching it happen to someone else. It’s like all of a sudden waking up and realizing that you’re not alone in the world.
Eventually the helpers unearthed an extra fuel bottle from the depths of the boat’s bilge, and we were on our way. A short time later, Sheena let out a joyous squeal and all at once I knew we’d be stopping again. Next to our boat a whale breached, and then her two calves followed. We spent a half an hour circling the enormous animals as they repeatedly surfaced and jumped around. I imagined one of them biting my Swiss-style sausage link and taking me into the depths of the ocean while I fidgeted for my dive knife. I really dodged a bullet there.
The following morning it was time to get down to business. By the glow of Nacho’s dome light after our boat trip I had removed our brake master cylinder. I now carried it in my sweatshirt pocket as I made my way at 6:00 in the morning toward the Puerto Lopez bus station. I would go to Guayaquil, a 5 hour trip, and not come back until I found a replacement. By 7:00 I had found the right bus and was relaxing my way Southward. Someone else drove, for a change.
As the bus passed through grasslands and canyons I listened to Radiolab and This American Life on my iPod. Ira Glass dug deep to find out what happened during the massacre at Dos Erres, Guatemala, and I thought about how long ago we had driven through that region. It seemed like an eternity. Being able to sit there and stare out the window while being entertained was a welcome luxury. By now the uncertainty of when and how our van would be fixed didn’t concern me. We’d been through this before, and everything would certainly work out. How could I complain, after all, after listening to what happened at Dos Erres?
When the bus reached Guayaquil I grabbed a sandwich and walked out to the taxis. I hopped in one and directed him to a VW parts importer. When we reached the place I stepped out and passed my old master cylinder through the barred service window to the parts guy. He disappeared for a minute and emerged holding the exact part I needed. I paid him, thumbed another taxi back to the bus station, and hopped on the next bus for Puerto Lopez. The whole day was all very non-Latin-American in its efficiency and in the way everything worked on the first try. I suppose that after you’ve traveled across continents and smuggled really heavy car parts across international borders to fix very difficult mechanical problems, everything else just seems easy.
On the bus ride home I sat in the bulkhead seat next to a pleasant Ecuadorian woman with a lot of grocery bags. On the bulkhead there was a large picture of Jesus superimposed over a backdrop of a serene Swiss mountain lake. Jesus was made in the image of a Latin-American boy, but in an effort to make him look as innocent and tranquil as possible, he had turned out looking more like a prebubescent Latin-American girl wearing a satin bed sheet. He certainly looked nothing like the Middle-Eastern man that he really was. I find it curious that every Christian society does this same kind of Jesus stylization. I stared at this innocent-looking bed sheet-wearing prebubescent Latin-American girl for five hours, while listening to episodes of Fresh Air on my iPod.
As the sun went down and the bus descended the same road where our brakes had failed, Terri Gross interviewed Maurice Sendak, the author of Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice spoke about his impending death and the sadness he felt at having had to watch his friends pass away, while at the same time looking positively on the times he had.
“There’s something that I’m finding out as I’m aging – that I am in love with the world. And I look right now as we speak together, out the window of my studio, and I see my trees – my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old, and … I can see how beautiful they are. I can take time to see how beautiful they are … It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music … Live your life, live your life, live your life.”
Crossing into Ecuador from Colombia marked the first time in three months that we had driven across an international border under our own power. The previous night we’d driven twelve hours, our long push culminating at a Texaco station high in the mountains where we set up camp. Shortly after our arrival all four of our tires were promptly marked by a band of rogue dogs, as happens every time we stop.
Having driven the last four hours at night, I hadn’t seen a rock in the road and hit it at around 45 miles per hour. The rock flung up and hit the propane hose that feeds our stove, creating a gash that caused most of our propane to leak out. I noticed the smell as we settled down for bed, and closed the valve so as to retain what little propane was left, and to avoid waking up dead. One more thing to fix.
The following morning, after a short visit to a church built over a gorge where a crazy person claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary, we crossed into Ecuador to find the Pan-American a beautifully manicured four lane highway. We continued South to the town of Otavalo, and after a couple of uninspiring days there we were ready to say goodbye to the Northern Hemisphere.
By early afternoon we had arrived at the equator. We found a restaurant near the equatorial line, where we were welcomed by a bunch of cardboard cutouts of Dave Zimmern, the host of some American strange foods show. He had apparently stopped here and eaten a guinea pig, as evidenced by the myriad photographs, quotes, and faded cardboard cutouts of him holding said guinea pig. We spied several guinea pigs impaled on sticks over a fire, so we inquired. In a country where lunch rarely costs more than $2, we regretfully turned down the $20 price tag and instead ate what the locals were eating. The proprietor seemed extremely dismayed that we were unwilling to purchase one of her exorbitantly priced rodents. We paid the $2 for our lunch and made our way to the equator.
The equator, for all its fame and reputation, was about as interesting as a line painted on the ground. We checked it with our GPS and found it to be several feet from the real equator. It wasn’t merely disappointing in the way that your children don’t like The Rolling Stones as much as you do. No, it was really disappointing. Like the kind of disappointment you feel when your children quit their perfectly adequate jobs to go live in a van. This fact didn’t stop us from doing silly poses and, most impressively, planking the illegitimate equator.
A few small issues had popped up with Nacho since leaving Susacón, so we decided to spend a couple of days taking care of them in Quito; one of our inner tie rod ends had developed some slop, we now had a bad propane line, and we found – to my utter dismay and disbelief – that our new transmission had come with a leaky drive flange oil seal. As we drove, the bottom of our engine and transmission were being covered by a continuous drip of gear oil, which mixed with dust to create a nice oily sludge. Fortunately I’d picked up a couple of new drive flange oil seals in Panama on a whim, so I planned to replace the leaky one and be on our way.
We drove to Quito and found an enclosed dirt parking lot in the middle of downtown where we could camp for about $3 per night. Within walking distance were a whole gaggle of restaurants serving delicious – and virtually free – meals. Middle Eastern kebabs could be had for $1.50. Indian curry with naan and rice was $4. Our favorite lunch place turned out to be a nice Italian restaurant with crisp white table cloths and well-dressed waiters. Main dishes came from the wood-fired oven in the center of the room. The standard lunch included fresh squeezed juice, an appetizer, a large bowl of soup, a well-stocked salad bar, a main course, and a dessert – all for $3. Ecuador, with its $1.50/gallon gas and dirt cheap delicious food, was going to be a welcome relief to our budget.
I started off by repairing our propane line. As expected, none of the hardware stores carried the fitting I needed, so I improvised using things I had in the van. I ended up fixing it MacGyver style with a bolt and some plumber’s tape. Next it was time to fix the transmission leak. I drained the gear oil, cut away the safety wire and removed the CV joint – laughing to myself that I had ever thought I’d be done messing with CV joints – and then removed the clips and washers that held the drive flange in. Upon removing the drive flange it was obvious that the oil seal had been pressed in crooked when it was rebuilt. I compared my new seals with the crooked one and discovered that the shop in Panama had sold me the wrong seals. What? Another inept worker in the Latin-American car repair industry? Shocking!
I was unable to remove the seal without destroying it, and nothing I tried would cause it to straighten out. I cursed my luck and reassembled everything. I would have to deal with the leak, and resign myself to continually checking the oil level. It just never gets any easier!
The next day I went to several VW parts houses and found that nobody carried a tie rod for Nacho. One would have to be ordered from Guayaquil, which would take two days. It made me nervous because the parts guy never asked me what year Nacho was before placing the order over the phone, but he assured me it was the correct one. I gave it a 5% chance. In the meantime, Sheena and I decided to escape from civilization for a while, and make the trip South to go camping and hiking at Cotopaxi volcano while we waited. We’d just drive carefully so our front wheel assembly wouldn’t come apart.
Getting to Cotopaxi involved traveling over several mountains at or around 14,000 feet. At this elevation, Nacho operates at about 30% power since the fuel doesn’t have enough oxygen to achieve complete combustion. We repeatedly coasted down long stretches of freeway, and then chugged up long stretches in first gear. Eventually we arrived at the dirt road turnoff for Cotopaxi, which was followed by many miles of dirt road. Finally we arrived to our campsite at the base of the mountain; the wind whipped through our the nearly-frozen tundra known as our camp, while the temperature plunged toward freezing. Our camp was at a frosty 15,000 feet in the shadow of the even frostier 20,000 foot volcano.
The following day we donned our hiking gear and set off across the treeless landscape toward the volcano. Being above the tree line allowed us to hike cross-country straight up the side of the peak. We had grandiose plans of reaching the snow line and exploring the edge of the glacier than clung to the side of the mountain, but by mid-afternoon we had only climbed a little better than half way to the snow line.
We regretfully turned around and ran down the side of the volcano in order to make it back to camp before dark. We crawled into Nacho just as the sun crested the horizon, where we cooked dinner and made tea, raising the inside temperature to 65 degrees while outside it plunged below freezing. Sure they have mechanical problems, but you still can’t beat a Vanagon for overland travel.
We opted to spend one more day at Cotopaxi, choosing this time to hike in the other direction. In a failed attempt to locate the trail on our map, we ended up hiking all day along an abandoned road bed through the mountains. This marked the second straight day of not coming across another human here in the beautiful Andes. Another comfortable night in Nacho ensued, and then we were off to collect our tie rod.
In Quito we found parking in a neighborhood close to the VW shop. I crawled under the van with two wrenches and a tie rod puller; yes, I actually have a tie rod puller. Five minutes later we were walking down the street with a badly worn tie rod in one hand, and virtually no chance of finding the right part in the other. As we entered the parts house, the owner reached down and grabbed the part, holding it up with a big grin on his face. I held it up to the bad tie rod and, to my disbelief, found it to be the correct part. I happily paid him and walked back to Nacho, where I crawled underneath and easily installed the new part while fútbol moms drove by and pedestrians stared.
Having had our fill of Quito, we fired up our safer and more reliable Nacho and headed West. We were ready for some surf and sun, so we bid farewell to the mountains with a smile on our faces and a drip on our transmission.