Feb 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 15 Comments

Sweatpants Superhero

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The only reason Sheena let me publish this article was for the hope that it may help future travelers overcome…their issues.

Sitting in Nacho one evening in San Miguel de Allende, Sheena looked over at me with wanting eyes.  Almost immediately I knew it was a trap.

“Bradley?”  She said, sounding so sweet.  “Will you do me a really big favor?”  I knew I couldn’t say no.  When your spouse is ill, it doesn’t matter that you’ve retired to your easy chair for the night with a Steinbeck novel and a good beer.  No, it doesn’t matter if your whole body feels like Jell-O from your 15 minute hot shower, or that you’re already wearing your pajamas.  For the last few weeks Sheena had been feeling unwell, and after adjusting her diet had failed to deliver results, I knew she was ready to pull out the big guns.

“Does it involve going to the pharmacy?”


These things, like pulling teeth, are best done quickly before your body has a chance to object.  I grabbed my hooded sweatshirt and canvas moccasins, opened the sliding door, and headed out of the campground.  I was halfway to the pharmacy before I looked down and realized what I looked like; a black hooded sweatshirt, matching oversized black sweatpants, and canvas moccasins without socks.  Being that they were my pajamas, and hence never having been worn with shoes, I had never noticed the nerdy way in which the bottoms of my sweatpants didn’t quite reach my shoes.  Instead the leg holes swung like hula hoops around my white, sockless ankles.

I made my way, self-consciously through the passersby on their way to dinner on this, a Saturday night.  I’ve heard that the French secretly make fun of Americans for the subset of our population that thinks it’s okay to be seen in public wearing full sweatsuits. Shame on us for giving the French a reason to laugh at us. When I see this atrocity, even I turn my nose up in disgust.  And how many times have I posted snide comments on Twitter about Scottsdale women and their bad habit of wearing matching sweatsuits in public?  Apparently twice.

I made my way down our street, across Calle Zacateros, to the Pharmacy.  I hadn’t really thought through how I would approach the interaction, so it went down like a train wreck.  I stormed in the front door and found the young female pharmacist staring down at the counter in a kind of trance.

“I need an enema.”

She looked up at me, startled.  She didn’t say anything, her eyes gave away her uncertainty laced with fear.  She didn’t blink.  I wanted to turn and run, but I remembered Sheena’s poor little eyes looking up at me.  …a really big favor?

“Um…do you have any of them here…for sale?”

“No.”  She must have been mesmerized by my matching sweatsuit.  “They sell them at Farmacia Guadalajara.  It’s down the road.”  As I left I could almost feel her thumbs on her phone keypad, texting all of her friends.

The town’s main street was crowded with couples dressed to the nines heading out for dinner, old ladies crouched over going wherever it is that old ladies go, and assorted laborers making their way home after a hard day’s work.  Beyond all of these judging eyes, Farmacia Guadalajara.

I bobbed and weaved through the foot traffic, my matching sweatsuit grazing the odd hand or old lady cane.  Straight ahead, Dilshan stood in front of his restaurant talking to Greg, our waiter from the night before.  When he saw me, Dilshan stopped and stared, mouth slightly ajar.  As I approached, he looked at my matching suit in disbelief, and then recovered.

“Heeeeey…you’re back in town?”

“Yeah…uh…our car is still broken down.  I’m going to the pharmacy.  You know, Sheena’s feeling ill.”  For a minute I thought he’d suggest that we stop by for dinner again, but then I remembered he had a reputation to uphold.

“I hope it wasn’t from my food!”

I assured him that it wasn’t, and dismissed myself with a handshake.  I turned to Greg and shook his hand, only to realize that it wasn’t Greg at all, but a complete stranger.  It was that moment of horror that we’ve all felt.  Oh, you!? I didn’t mean that YOU were pregnant! Been there.

Once inside Farmacia Guadalajara, I made my way to the back where another young female pharmacist waited.  As she handed me the enema kit her eyes said feel better, while also saying you look like a clown. I picked up two packs of chocolate and headed to the checkout counter.  It’s just something you do when buying a product like this.  Chocolate seems to lessen the blow, as if to say, “yeah, I came to buy this chocolate, but these caught my eye, so I decided to casually buy them too.”

There must have been something magical in that chocolate, as Sheena was feeling like a million bucks the next day.  Silverio and Mario returned to our campsite and fixed Nacho once and for all with new rear driver’s side wheel bearings, and we were ready to rock.  One more night in San Miguel de Allende and we were poised to hit the road to Oaxaca, near where Nacho Libre was filmed.  A place where people are used to seeing Americans dressed up in funny suits.  What would the French think?  Oh, let’s stop kidding ourselves.  Since when have we ever cared what the French think?

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Feb 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 10 Comments

El Golpeador Tries Volkswagen Mechanics

El Golpeador was a squat man who moved about hurriedly.  He was missing half of his little finger, likely due to the rapidity with which he carried out his projects.  As he approached Nacho, I could see through the pouring rain that he was carrying a bucket full of tools, none of which were intended for a rear wheel bearing replacement; a pipe wrench, a long bar, a hammer, vise grips.  I got that sinking feeling, the one you get when you forget to set the emergency brake, and then watch the station wagon carrying your whole family roll backwards into fast moving traffic.

How did we get here?  It all started when I failed to fix this problem in Guanajuato, as I eluded to in my last post.

On the way to San Miguel de Allende I carried out a meticulous series of troubleshooting steps to hone in on the problem.  A casual observer might have seen me swerving violently, randomly pulling the hand brake, revving the engine, slamming on the brakes, creating an aura of danger about Nacho.  To the trained professional, I was troubleshooting.  The Van Whisperer.  The frequency of vibration was independent from engine speed, so it wasn’t in the engine or transmission.  Braking didn’t change the sound, so it probably wasn’t a CV joint.  The vibration could be momentarily eliminated during hard right turns, so it probably had something to do with a wheel on the right side.  The vibration couldn’t be felt through the hand brake, while it could be felt in the foot brake, so it was likely in the front wheel.  There we go, front right wheel.  So easy a mere child could do it!

When we arrived at the campground in San Miguel de Allende we settled in amongst enormous German and Swiss overlanding rigs, sliding into a state of rig envy.  We’d been inside a few of these types at the Overland Expo, and knew they were luxurious.  The elaborate electrical systems, the plush interiors, the indentured servants.  The only vibration these things feel while driving is caused by crushing lowly Vanagons under their enormous tires.  Yeah, we told ourselves, but good luck parallel parking. Lying to ourselves is a defense mechanism.

Over the course of our stay, we found San Miguel de Allende to be charming.  The people were pleasant, the streets were kept clean, and its cobbled roads and brightly colored shops made it seem quaint.  The place is full of retired foreigners; Americans, Germans, British, Canadians.  Whereas this would usually bother us, it actually kind of works in San Miguel.  It lacked the obnoxious English language solicitations and predatory corner-lurking salesmen.  The town operated as a Mexican mountain town where foreigners happened to live.  On nice days, groups of friends would meet at the tennis courts for a few games.  Bulletin boards advertised Spanish emersion programs.  I walked into a wine bar to ask where I could buy European beer, and toward the end of our conversation the woman asked if I spoke English.  Turned out she was American too, albeit with a convincing Mexican accent, but it was never presumed that we would do business in English.  This was, after all, Mexico.  It was all very refreshing to know that a town like this was possible.

One afternoon we spoke to Hans, whose family operated our campground, to see if he knew of any good mechanics.  The next morning, Silverio, a suspension specialist with 10 years’ experience, showed up with an assistant in tow.

I told Silverio that we wanted all of our front wheel bearings replaced.  He crawled under Nacho and showed me that, in addition to our wheel bearings, our rack and pinion had too much play, and that the bushings holding the rack and pinion to the frame were all shot.  For good measure, we asked him to have the brake rotors resurfaced as well, and to replace the front brake pads.  We were going to lick this problem with the “replace everything” method.  To make a good situation great, we didn’t even have to move Nacho from his place in the campground.  Sheena, who at this time had been feeling ill for a few days, was able to sleep upstairs the whole time they worked.  See? Breaking down in Mexico makes getting sick fun!

Without hesitation, the two of them started in on Nacho.  Within minutes the rotors were off, they had the rack and pinion removed, and they were tapping the wheel bearings out.  Before we knew it, they were walking into town carrying our rotors and the rack and pinion. By evening the rotors were machined, they had tightened up the steering, replaced the rack and pinion bushings, the front wheel bearings, and the front brake pads.  The total cost was $102.

The next day, when the sun came up we hit the road.  Shortly thereafter, terror settled upon us like a wet blanket.  The sound was back, the low hum and vibration.  I swerved violently a few times and grabbed the hand brake, just to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.

We pulled into the next town and asked about a mechanic, which is how we became acquainted with El Golpeador.  I took him for a ride, showed him all of the symptoms, and told him what we’d already done.  He walked around a bit, looked under the car, and made his announcement.

“It’s the muffler.”

He said it with such confidence, in the way that a politician makes a promise.  I reiterated my extensive troubleshooting results, and he decided it was indeed not the muffler, and instead must be a rear wheel bearing.  It was at this point that he disappeared into his garage, and emerging through the pouring rain with his collection of incorrect tools.

El Golpeador first grabbed his pipe wrench, slid his long bar over the handle, and tried unsuccessfully to remove the axle lock nut. After giving up, he jacked Nacho up and removed the wheel, but that was apparently the extent of his expertise.  His next move was to use his hammer to ravish, with all of his strength, Nacho’s delicate brake drum.

“Stoooop!  What are you doing!?”  He looked up at me as if I were insane.  “All you have to do is remove these two bolts and it’ll slide off!”  He pulled out his vise-grips and removed the bolts while my mood continued to darken.  As I watched him remove our brake pads, it was clear he had no idea what he was doing.  He proceeded to loosen the brake backing plate before realizing that he couldn’t actually remove it without removing the hub lock nut.  Next, he reached behind and started loosening the bolts that hold the hub housing together.  Having done this job before myself, I knew this was a time consuming dead end road.

“What exactly are you hoping to accomplish?  Once you get those bolts undone you still won’t be able to get the bearings out.  You need to remove the lock nut.”

He tried to convince me that he could get the bearings off from the back of the stub axle.  At this point I told him to stop, I got out the Bentley manual, and showed him an exploded view of the rear hub assembly.  He still tried to convince me that he could do it, that he could defy the laws of the universe, that he could bend the space-time continuum.  At this, I kindly asked him to put everything back together, which took considerable time, and then we left.

Dumbass.  Everyone knows that Chuck Norris is the only one who can bend the space-time continuum.  And so we flipped Nacho around and slowly made our way back to San Miguel de Allende to see Silverio again.  The Mexican Chuck Norris.

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Feb 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 22 Comments

The Dogs of Guanajuato

On the drive from Guadalajara to Guanajuato, Nacho developed a high frequency vibration, most likely in one of the wheels, which also manifested itself as a vibration under braking.  Being that we didn’t know what was wrong, we were a little on edge about the performance of our brakes.  Following the directions to the campground in Guanajuato, we climbed higher and higher into the ravines above town.  Within a few hundred meters of our destination, the tiny cobbled road pitched straight down at a gradient of at least 30%.  We crept along at a walking pace, hoping that our brakes would hold up.  In my mind I picked a few power poles that would work as emergency stops to keep us from barreling into one of the ramshackle huts that clung to the mountainside.  Of course I didn’t mention this to Sheena, who was already starting to freak out.  Our road ended in a tee, and we turned left.  The only thing that stood between us and the campground was a tight, one lane, serpentine path that wove through a close collection of buildings at a gradient of at least 35%.  I slowly turned the tight corner and then floored it.  Nacho groaned, climbed, and slowly came to a stop.  The engine died as Sheena hyperventilated on the edge of consciousness.

Several more close calls and tricky maneuvers saw us arrive safely at our campground via an alternate route that involved driving the wrong way on a tight one-way street.  When we stopped Sheena punched me, I pumped my fists in the air and growled, Sheena swore “never again”, and I strutted around in circles with my chest poked out.  Take that, road.

When we pulled into the campground we introduced ourselves to the only other people camping there, an elderly German couple in a 2005 Land Cruiser with a camper body.  They had been on the road since 2007, having shipped their rig from Hamburg to Buenos Aires, and were slowly making their way to Alaska.

“Ve tolt our son zat zere voult be no money left! Ve vill spent it all!”

That’s the spirit.  I know who I want to be when I grow up.

By day Guanajuato was vibrant.  Service providers walked or drove the streets advertising their services by yelling or playing jingles over loudspeakers.  When they heard the propane truck’s jingle, residents would wave him down and refill their bottles.  Every provider had his own call; the newspaper salesman, the trash man, the knife sharpener.  By night, the service calls were replaced by the dogs of Guanajuato.  We had noticed that each house had a chicken and a rooster in the yard, and a dog or two on the roof.  At night, the dogs owned the airwaves.  My lack of patience has prohibited me from actually counting, but I imagine there were over 200 barks per minute audible from our campsite all night long.  In the morning the barks were joined by hundreds of roosters bringing in the new day.  I recorded the following sound clip at our camp one evening:

[audio:http://www.drivenachodrive.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Dogs-of-Guanahuato.mp3|titles=Dogs of Guanahuato]

The food scene continues to keep us happy and looking forward to our next meal.  Over the last month in Mexico we’ve learned a few things about food;

1. The street cart is king.  For a couple of dollars we can eat the best tasting food on the planet, prepared from scratch before our very eyes.  And despite what you may have heard, they won’t make you sick.

2. If Lonely Planet recommends it, it’s best avoided. We’ve been disappointed 100% of the time.  Whoever wrote the Mexico guide was not a foodie.

3. By shopping at open air markets, it’s possible to get the freshest ingredients for home cooking.  We’ve made some damn good meals so far, and a meal never costs more than $5 to put together.

4. The torta ahogada is a must-eat.  A thick bread roll stuffed with onions and juicy cubes of carnitas, drowned in a sauce of chiles de arbol.  Once served, it is dowsed in more tongue searing chile sauce and drizzled with fresh lime juice.  When eaten, the spicy concoction coats the hands and face like a toddler after an ice cream cone, the lips burn, and the mouth waters at the thought of another one.

5. If you can’t find a street cart, find a hole in the wall instead.  Locals don’t go to actual restaurants, so they’re touristy, less authentic, and overpriced.  For some reason, I’ve only had upset stomach after eating in restaurants; never from street carts.

After four days of hiking, eating, and exploring, we packed up and bid farewell to the town, the roosters, the food, and the dogs of Guanajuato.  I spent the last day working on Nacho, trying to fix the brakes and the vibrations.  As we hit the road we had our fingers crossed.  Once we escaped the winding streets and made our way back onto the mountain roads, the vibration returned, and the brakes continued to shake.  Yep, sounds about right.  Something to do in San Miguel de Allende.

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Feb 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 18 Comments

Monthly Summary – January 2012

The first month of our journey is behind us.  In the interest of spilling the behind the scenes details of a trip like this, I thought we’d run a monthly summary.  We’ve been getting a lot of questions like “how much does your trip cost?” and “what happened to your GPS map?”.  Read on and you’ll find out…

Countries driven: USA, Mexico

Miles driven: 2,963 (odometer reads 279,463)

Total bribes paid: 0

Total Spent: $1,762 ($56.84/day)

What went wrong:

  • Fried two Samlex 600W True Sine Wave inverters.  These supplied 110V electricity to Nacho for plugging in household appliances.  Samlex decided to stop honoring their 2-year warranty after our 2nd one of the trip (3rd since we bought it) died, so we replaced it with a 750W Duralast modified sine wave inverter from AutoZone in Puerto Vallarta.
  • Our SPOT GPS Messenger died in Mazatlan.  It still turns on, but will not communicate updates.  We contacted their warranty department, but after a couple of weeks they still haven’t taken any action.  This has made our live map useless.
  • Two of our Shurflo check valves split open in Baja.  These are used to keep our onboard hot and cold water tanks from mixing.  We took the valves out, covered them in Gorilla Glue, covered them in duct tape, and reinstalled them.  One of them still works, while the other seems not to work so well.  We bought some brass check valves in Mazatlan, but haven’t installed them yet.  The water system works fine, and was only down for one evening.
  • Our Sure Power battery separator doesn’t seem to be working out for us.  Its job is to connect the starting and auxiliary batteries when the car is running so that our “house battery” can charge up from the alternator.  This works, but due to complexities too in depth to discuss here, our house battery would never reach a full charge, even once it switched to solar power charging.  This caused us to have to ration electricity, which we didn’t like.  We disconnected the battery separator and have been great ever since.

What went right:

  • Our on-demand hot water system has far exceeded our expectations.  I designed the water system such that we could heat up the hot water tank while we drive, and use the hot water for showers later, or we could idle the van while we shower and generate on-demand continuous hot water.  The latter has been our preference due to the ease, no need for advanced planning, and extremely hot water.  When the water comes out of the shower, it’s so hot that it’s hard to stand under it.  It can be mixed with cold water, but usually we enjoy the skin-melting hot water by itself.
  • Nacho’s engine.  We didn’t have to crack open then engine compartment all month.  This must be some kind of record.  Nacho just kept chugging away without any complaint.

Things to ponder:

We spent quite a bit less money this month than we did in a typical month at home.  We find it strange that it’s cheaper to travel the world than it is to stay home.

We drove an average of about 95 miles per day in January.  While this is much more than we drove back home (and a little more than double what the average American drives per day), our overall carbon footprint is lower.  We generate all of our electricity with solar, have only used about 1 gallon of propane all month, and use magnitudes less water than the average person.  One day I’ll actually do the math, but I’d imagine our carbon footprint is 50% less than the average American (I know that’s debatable, so let’s wait until I do the calculations before tempers fly).  This just helps us sleep a little better at night.

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Feb 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 19 Comments

Drive Nacho Drive Meets Bumfuzzle

In 2002, Pat and Ali were living the standard American existence in Chicago.  One night over pizza and beer they decided to leave the life they knew, buy a catamaran, and sail around the world.  They took an intro to sailing course, bought a boat, and set sail.  Four years later, they had made it all the way around.  Not yet ready to settle down, they sold their boat and bought a 1958 Volkswagen panel van and drove from Alaska to Argentina.  Now they have two kids and live aboard a sailboat, which they’ve been slowly cruising down the Pacific coast.  Their current location: Puerto Vallarta.

Ambling down the dock toward their boat, Bumfuzzle, we recounted to Pat how we had arrived in Puerto Vallarta hoping to camp at an RV park in the old town.  It had closed, so we ended up staying at a cheap hotel where we fell asleep to the soothing sounds of a wailing hooker on the other side of our paper thin wall.  Oh, if our mattress could talk.  I awoke in the morning to find that the fitted sheet had come off, and I was lying directly on the bare mattress.  As we walked to the boat, I habitually scratched at my sides, convinced that our bed had given me the clap.

When we arrived at the boat, Ali greeted us holding their infant son, Lowe.  A few minutes later Ouest, age two, awoke from her nap and sidled up the stairs.  She took her place next to Ali’s leg, shoulders sagging, and squinted at us with sleepy eyes.  Sure, Pat and Ali keep the boat clean and running, but we could tell who called the shots around here.  A red and yellow Playskool car was parked next to the mast, and the boat’s perimeter was lined with kid-proof netting.  A set of pink tea cups sat on a ledge.  This was Ouest’s territory.

After a quick tour of Nacho we headed to the beach for drinks.  Ouest, ever the unique two year old, had quesadillas and guacamole.  Pat and Ali lived in their VW van for two years, so it was nice to compare notes and see how our outlook compares to theirs.

Soon enough, Sheena’s guilty conscience got the best of her.

“So Ali, did you drive a lot during your Volkswagen trip?”

“Um, every once in a while.”  She looked a little sheepish, but then Pat interjected.

“Ali, the only time you ever drove was when I was behind the van pushing.  In 60,000 miles you drove less than a hundred yards!”

“Yeah, like I said.  Every once in a while.”

Great.  The precedent has been set.

A recurring theme in Pat and Ali’s blog is their inability to capture a normal family photo due to Ouest’s shenanigans.  We all decided to give it a try for a Bumfuzzle meets Drive Nacho Drive photo, and it was the same old story.  First attempt: Everyone stands in a line, the camera timer starts, Ouest runs away, click.  Second attempt: Everyone stands in line, the timer starts, Ouest runs away, Pat runs after Ouest and snatches her by the armpits, Pat runs back into the frame just in time, click. Yep, we know who calls the shots.

The afternoon turned to evening and we talked about their near term sailing plans.  Would they stay in Mexico, or venture elsewhere?  In true Bumfuzzle style, they hadn’t made up their minds.  They sounded content sailing up and down the Mexican coast, but Pat mentioned that it would be fun to make another Pacific crossing.

“Where would you go?  Australia?” I asked.

“Well, if we made the crossing then we’d probably sail around the world again.”  You know, if you’re going to bake a cake, you might as well open a nationwide chain of bakeries.  Obviously.

Their spontaneity and confidence was an inspiration.  The next morning, after getting lost for three hours and ending up back at our starting point, we headed East.  As we drove up into the mountains toward Guadalajara it felt like a weight had been lifted from our shoulders.  For some reason until now a sense of urgency has underscored our trip.  We had a plan and a rough timeline and each stop was another step toward executing the plan.  After our day with Bumfuzzle we were more at peace.  We drove higher and higher into the mountains, not leaving first and second gear.  As soon as we felt like it, we stopped.  There was no reason to go any farther; wherever we were was the destination.

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Feb 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 24 Comments

Slaying Fish and Saving Babies

I had been standing on the beach for an hour, the bungee cords holding my dive knife to my leg cutting off the circulation to my foot.  The nefarious no-see-ums of San Blas dined gluttonously on my flesh as I stood with my fishing pole in hand, line extending into the surf.  It had been over three weeks since we reached the ocean, and I still hadn’t caught a fish.  The only thing saving us from starvation every day had been the miracle of commerce.  I was clearly no fisherman.  That is, until I felt the ever so light tug on my line.

Could it be? I wondered.  I waited with my eyes concentrated on the tip of my rod.  Yes, something was tugging on my line.  I had all but decided that this ocean was completely devoid of life until this, the tug of my line, proof that life does exist in the ocean.  The scientists are right!

I quickly reacquainted myself with the functionality of my reel, as I was until this point unpracticed in reeling anything in.  With each feeble twist of the little twisty handle thing I pulled the sure-to-be behemoth sea monster of a fish closer to shore.  Closer to our Dutch oven, which would be especially retrieved from Nacho’s cabinet just for the occasion of this abundant fish dinner.  As it neared shore, the ocean exploded as if a giant wave were crashing ashore.  Moments later, as I reeled the fish onto the beach, I realized that the commotion was indeed a wave crashing ashore.  My fish was lacking.  Flaccid.  An anticlimax.  My throat began to close up with the swell of tears at my ongoing failure as a fisherman, but I held it back.  Just because everyone else catches big fish doesn’t mean I have to.  Come on Brad, I thought, don’t ride the bandwagon.

Moments after I finished chopping up the tiny fish into bait for future failed fishing ventures, I heard a squeal of joy wafting up from the beach.  I looked up and saw Sheena very rapidly flapping one hand at me in a motion that I assumed was intended to make me come to her.  As I approached, I saw a tiny rock next to her feet having a seizure.  Upon further scrutiny, I realized that the tiny rock was actually a baby sea turtle instinctively, slowly, making its way from its nest to the ocean.  The hyperventilation and the look of utter bliss on her face.  The genuine satisfaction and eye-popping joy.  This must be how it feels to catch a fish.

After two nights of beach camping in San Blas, the witnessing of the miracle of life, the surfing, and the reminder of my perpetual failure as a fisherman, we pointed south.  Everyone we had encountered had spoken highly of Sayulita, a small and quirky expat surf town where the jungle-covered mountains meet the ocean just north of Puerto Vallarta.

We pulled into Sayulita, a compact town with cobbled dirt roads and lots of color.  We hadn’t seen many tourists in Baja, nor had we seen many in Mazatlan after tourism’s recoil due to occasional violence between drug cartels.  San Blas had a few retired expats, but not many.  Sayulita was a different story.  Most of the signs and almost all of the voices we heard were in English.  If the Americans left, the town would be gone.  At first it was a put off, but then we decided to roll with it.  We’re far from home, so we might as well have the taste of home when we can.  We proceeded to drink espresso, eat banana pancakes, and speak English.  Later, I proceeded to fall off of my surfboard and shove an ice axe-like rock right into my heel.  In my scramble to find my board I took three sea urchin spines in the same foot.  I swore out loud, in English.

When it came time to find a campground for the night, we were told where to find it.  We found the beach front property surrounded by a tall brick fence and dotted with palm trees, and inquired about the price.  $35.  You must be out of your damn mind I thought.  $35 to park for the night?  We cursed our American brethren and the economic fortune they’d brought on this small town, and decided to head north a few miles to the equally small, but relatively undiscovered town of San Francisco.

In San Francisco we drove down the main street until it dead ended in a very small parking lot at the beach.  A small river emptied from the jungle into the bay next to where a merengue band played while people danced.  Couples sat beneath palm trees and watched the sunset.  We walked over to a lady who ran a small restaurant and asked her where we could park Nacho to camp.  She twirled her hand in the air and said “anywhere’s fine”.  I pointed to the van.  “Right there?”  She nodded her head and said something about it being a public space.  The spot was pretty perfect; a thick canopy of trees overhead, the beach a few yards away, a quiet dead end with little traffic.  I asked a passing police officer if it was really okay.  He thought about it for a second, looking a little confused, and then said, “sure, I don’t see why not.”

After the sun set, all of the cars left and we had the place to ourselves.  We popped the camper top and made ourselves at home.  We heard some beautiful music coming from the street outside of a café a stone’s throw away, so we walked over and ordered a couple of drinks.  The music was wonderful; the melancholy voice of Portuguese fado, coupled with simple guitar and a hand drum.  I couldn’t resist the temptation to finally pull out our digital recorder for a song.  Turns out it was Argentinean folk music played by a couple from Argentina.  I’ve embedded the audio below for your listening pleasure (click to play).

Argentinean Folk Music – San Francisco, Mexico

After a few songs we headed back to Nacho and called it a night.  We paid a beach front restaurant owner $3 to plug Nacho into her electricity for an overnight battery conditioning, pulled the curtains, and slipped away to sleep.  No brick walls, no neighbors, and $32 cheaper than the alternative.  Bandwagons be damned.

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Jan 2012

Blog, North America

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Sheena of the Three Milks

“You will stay in my house, and you will stay for at least one week.”

And that was that, we knew where we’d be staying in Mazatlán.  I met Santiago in 2001 when he was running a Mexican mountain bike race team.  He sponsored me and a few other riders to come to Mexico to race in the Copa Jumex.  A couple of hours into the race, my head was pounding from the heat and in my hallucinations I was swimming laps in a pool of ice cold Gatorade.  The nail in the coffin came when a young rider in cutoff jean shorts and tennis shoes passed me.  The shame.  For old times’ sake, Santiago invited us on the Saturday group mountain bike ride in Mazatlán.

“Sheena, you and I will rent bikes.  Brad, you will ride my bike.”  A pretty generous offer, considering that his bike used to be Todd Wells‘ race bike.  If you don’t know Todd, he is a two time Olympian and US national champion.  However, in a sick twist of fate we were unable to find any cycling shoes and pedals to borrow. This time Sheena and I would be riding in tennis shoes.  Total.  Freds.

As it turned out, Santiago’s rental bike was a bit dated and far too small for him.  He stuck it out for the first half of the ride, but then pulled the plug.  Hey Santiago, 1998 called.  It says it wants its bike back.

Regardless of the bike situation, the group was charged up about getting to show us their local trail.  In 2000 there was a UCI mountain bike World Cup held here, and everyone in the group mentioned it at some point.  It had become a point of pride.  The world came here to ride on our trail.  We found this pride, coupled with generosity, everywhere we looked.

With Santiago as our guide we traveled all over the city to meet people and eat well during our one week stay.  He would walk in front of us as we honed in on the best street carts.  “See that one?  It is packed with Mexicans.  That is how you know it will be good.”  After discovering Sheena’s unhealthy obsession with Pastel de Tres Leches, a cake made with three varieties of milk, he made it his personal mission to bring us to every establishment with good Tres Leches.  By the end of our stay, she had earned the nickname “Sheena Tres Leches”.  Probably not the kind of nickname a girl strives for, but it has meaning and was well earned.  Now she runs every day in an effort to return to having only one chin.

A couple of days into our stay, Sheena mentioned to Santiago that her tooth had been developing an ache. Without another word, he picked up the phone and got her a dentist appointment for that evening. When we arrived at the dentist, he spent about 30 minutes with her, did a complete cleaning, took x-rays, and told her how to get rid of the ache. When it was time to go, we asked him how much we owed him. He just waved his hand in the air, and said with a smile, “Don’t worry about it! Just have a good trip and be safe!”

During our stay we made friends with Chacho and his brother Ulises.  They’ve lived in Mazatlán all their lives, and still live in their family home in the historic center.  During our hike to the lighthouse, Chacho learned of Sheena’s Tres Leches problem.

“My aunt makes the best Tres Leches in Mexico.”  It was the kind of pride we’d come to expect in Mazatlán, but sounded like a big fish story.  I once had a Mexican guy tell me that he made the best enchiladas, but that ended with me waking myself up in the middle of the night by projectile vomiting out the side of my bed.  We just left it at that.

Throughout the week we attended two of Santiago’s city league basketball games.  Going to the games was a good way for us to get together with locals; we met Jorge, who works at the Pacifico brewery, and Papas, whose family runs a taco stand on a street corner in one of the neighborhoods.

One evening we stopped at Papas’ taco stand and sat down in front of the giant grill.  The cook, one of Papas’ family members, threw down a plate and tossed several kinds of meat onto it for us to eat while we waited.  Two terra cotta cazuelas sat atop the flames filled with tripa and carne asada.  A woman stood to the side making fresh tortillas for each order.  After so much meat, ceviche, and horchata, we slipped into a heavenly food coma.  I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again.  Mexican taco stands: pretty much the best thing ever.  As we left, Papas told us to stop by his house on our way out of town to say goodbye.

On our penultimate day Chacho invited us to the beach to fly his kite, an experience that solidified the fact that neither Sheena or I would ever succeed at kite surfing.  Before he went home he invited us for a going away get together.  “You guys come over for coffee tonight.  I have a surprise for you.”

When we got to Chacho’s house that evening he seemed to be smiling more widely than usual.  “I will be right back.”  He disappeared into the kitchen and came back with two cups of coffee and a Pastel de Tres Leches.  “I told my aunt that you love Tres Leches, so she made you this cake.”  Think about that.  When was the last time you went that far out of your way for someone you just met?  As with so many people we’ve met on our trip so far, Chacho is a real class act.  And by the way he was right.  It was hands down the best Tres Leches in Mexico.

The next day we packed up Nacho for the trip south.  From the lap of luxury back to the van of luxury.  As we packed, a young kid with a skateboard walked by and stopped when he looked in our van.  “It’s our home” I said.  We got to talking and I told him about our trip.  After a while he wished us luck on our trip and continued on his way.  Pretty inquisitive and mature for such a young guy, I thought.

After a short while the word had gotten out amongst the neighborhood’s ten to thirteen year old demographic.  Throughout the afternoon kids would walk up and wish us luck on our travels.  Nothing malicious or predatory, just good old fashioned nice.  And here I had gone and given up on that particular demographic all together.  Egg on my face.

The night before our departure we swung by Papas’ modest house just down the street from his taco stand.  He came out and we talked about our trip for a while, and then he told us he had something for us.  He ran inside and emerged with a plastic bag full of carnitas.  He told us that every morning at 4:00 he slaughters a pig for his taco stand, and he had set aside some of the meat from that day’s pig for us to take on the road.  And just like that, we were humbled.  Again.  Thanks Mazatlán.

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