The previous evening after a dinner on the Arab Soi we wandered the back alleys past shops selling spices and fabric, past an Iraqi restaurant and rows of turban-clad men loitering around shisha pipes. We reached Sukhumvit Street and crossed over a pedestrian bridge with a view of the city. We stood there for a while watching people and cars go by before the backdrop of the city that now felt so familiar. We could imagine living long term in Bangkok, despite the fact that we’re small town mountain-loving people. But we have the itch to move on. We still have a long way to drive.
We had wanted to drive to India from Southeast Asia, but the task has proven impossible. To get there, we would have to drive through either China or Burma. Burma is a no-go; the government has made moves to open up to the outside world, but the borders remain closed at the time of our arrival. China is also a bust, as the Chinese government requests $8,500 in fees for us to cross from Laos to Nepal. With no overland options available, we’ve resorted to our favorite activity: vehicle shipping.
Our apartment is situated only five minutes from Bangkok Port, but we’ve just received word from our shipping agent that container loading has been moved to Laem Chabang Port, 100 kilometers away. Helpful as always, our agents at Hellmann Logistics offer to drive out to the port with us for container loading, and the give us a ride back to our apartment—a full day of work and half a tank of gas, and at no charge. But when our Thai friend Gak catches word of this, he simply won’t have it. If anyone is to accompany us to the port, it will be him! We let Hellmann off the hook and follow Gak, in his 1960’s VW bus, to Laem Chabang.
When we arrive in Laem Chabang, we’re met for lunch by more Hellmann agents, and then we all roll out to the port together. We stop shortly at the port entry gate while our agent goes inside to get clearance, and then we all hop in Nacho and drive into the port. When we get there the container is waiting and open, and I slowly, ceremoniously drive Nacho inside. I would say that it seems like only yesterday that we drove Nacho out of the container in Malaysia, but I’d be lying. It seems like an eternity ago. We’ve learned a lot since arriving in Asia, and this feels more like a capstone than the next step in a journey.
Our shipping agents feel it too. We’ve only just met, but they get caught up in it just like we do, snapping photos of us, Nacho, and each other for posterity. It’s a far cry from our first shipping experience. And did we ever mention how much we love Thai people?
We finish bidding ado to Nacho and then load up in Gak’s VW to head back to Bangkok. Gak has led us to believe that he is a better candidate than our shipping agent to bring us back to the city, and this is his time to shine. We cruise to the gas station and buy a couple of Cokes. A good start. It’s late in the afternoon when we turn off of the main highway and head toward the ocean.
We wind through small beachside communities and pull off at an overlook above Chon Buri where we try to hide our intense fear of the monkeys that lurk about, and then we’re off again, toward the fishing wharves on the outskirts of Bangkok city. We find our way onto one of the docks and drive the bus out to the end where workers shuck clams. We’re welcomed by the happy workers, who tell us they’re from Burma. Several people collect the clam meat, while others place the shells in bags to be sold and ground down into bulk raw material.
The work looks terribly difficult, and the workers receive very little compensation for their hard work. During our time in Southeast Asia we’ve come to meet many Burmese laborers; immigrants from Burma typically perform the low-pay manual labor and servant work for the surrounding countries of greater wealth, much in the way of some Latin-American immigrants in the United States. The difference here is the pay scale and the often extreme working conditions that they must endure. Still, they remain happy and smiling, and they send much of their meager income home to support their families.
After forty five minutes of hanging out with the Burmese workers, the sun begins to set and they call it a day. Despite the workers neither speaking Thai nor English, we somehow manage to have a lengthy conversation of charades and guesswork, and come away feeling that they’re a happy group of people.
With Nacho gone, we’re on our own. The ship will take 16 days to go from Bangkok to Chennai, stopping once in Singapore. We decide to spend one more week in Bangkok, and then move on to Chennai to get our affairs in order before Nacho arrives. Task at hand: one week to be as carefree as possible.
As a great stroke of good luck and coincidence, our friends Ben and Chelsea just so happen to be passing through Bangkok for a couple of days as a part of their vacation. I met Ben when he was a senior university student when he came to work as my engineering intern at Gore. We became good friends with both Ben and his wife Chelsea, but haven’t seen them since they left Flagstaff.
For two days we re-explore Bangkok’s tourist areas with our American friends: boat taxi rides up and down the river to visit temples, another trip to the Grand Palace, strolling Khao San Road and Old Bangkok, and some good meals at some of our favorite restaurants.
After having been on the road for so long, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be on a time-limited vacation, and sometimes feel that we make terrible tour guides. We usually just go about our life and strange and interesting things just seem to happen. But when people come to visit, as in the case of my mom, or Ben and Chelsea, we have to figure out fun things to do. And when we can’t remember what normal people consider to be fun, it makes our job prone to failure. In the end, though, I think we have succeeded in entertaining our friends.
Ben and Chelsea’s last night in Bangkok also happens to be our last, and we know it has to be special. But what to do? Sheena and I are terrible at planning fun things, so we do the only thing that we can think of: we call our trusty friends Pat and Gak for guidance. They’ll have an idea!
Gak and Pat agree that the best thing would be for all of us to meet for one final dinner at Bangkok’s best hole-in-the-wall Pad Thai restaurant, which also happens to have Bangkok’s best fresh-squeezed orange juice. Aha! Why didn’t I think of that? I remind myself that I lack the ability to proactively plan fun things.
We take a cab to the general vicinity of the restaurant with Ben and Chelsea, and get out at a very large roundabout. I call Gak to see where we should meet, and he tells me he’ll call right back. In the interim, my phone runs out of credit and so Gak never calls back. Meanwhile we find ourselves sitting in the middle of the roundabout watching a large rat eat a small pile of rice. It starts to rain. We feel the evening slipping away, free of fun. This won’t do! I think to myself. In a moment of clarity I decide to top up my phone, after which everything falls into place, and we find ourselves riding in the back of Gak’s bus to the Pad Thai restaurant.
It turns out that Pat and Gak are correct that this place has the best orange juice in all of Thailand. The Pad Thai is also good, and comes wrapped in a little package of fried egg. Nice touch. It feels good to be together with all of these people. After all of these months in Asia, Pat and Gak have become our family, and it’s tough to leave them behind. Pat keeps us laughing with his quirky explanations of Thai social antics. He explains that in Thailand it’s not considered rude to tell someone that they look fat.
“Why would it be strange?” he says, “They already know they’re fat.”
“Yes, but aren’t there Thai people who are trying to shed some pounds, who might be self-conscious about their weight?”
“Of course there are people who want to lose weight, but they still know they’re fat. It’s normal!”
“Yes, women can be fat, too.”
Pat then goes on to tell Gak that he’s fat.
“Hey Fat Gak, do you only eat and never shit? Ha! See?”
Gak smiles and laughs. It would seem implausible that the idea of being self-conscious were so foreign to Thais, were it not for other conversations we’d had with our expat friends in Bangkok that verified this. We all have a good laugh and feel a little insensitive and politically incorrect.
At the end of dinner, we ask Pat to read the note he’s made in our book. His family runs a publishing business, and he has run off a copy of Drive Nacho Drive for us to keep in Nacho’s onboard library. We had asked him to write something for us on our dedications page. He had started writing in English, but then switched to Thai script in order to fully express himself. “You can read it after you learn to speak Thai,” he says, and then reads it aloud. His words are the distillation of all of the kindness and friendship we’ve come to know in our group of Thai friends. We’ll keep it forever so we can always remember our friends.
Gak has brought his copy, which he ordered online, and asks us to sign the dedications page as well. We can’t seem to capture our feelings as eloquently as Pat has, but we do our best. And with that we leave. After six months in Southeast Asia it’s time to move on, away from what we know, and straight into the unfamiliar madness of India.
The building was nondescript, sandwiched between skyscrapers in downtown Buenos Aires, its windows mirrored and unmarked. The blank hallway on the fourth floor was punctuated by nothing more than a green button on one wall. The heavy deadbolt let out a metallic clunk, and we entered the office.
A deflated-looking receptionist sat on a flimsy chair behind a bare desk. The meeting room where we waited for the money launderer contained a cheap desk, four chairs, and a telephone. There wasn’t a computer in the whole building and what furniture there was seemed rented and cheap; the place could be evacuated in no time flat if the cops showed up.
We handed the man our stack of US dollars, and he handed us a bigger stack of Argentine pesos. And just like that we saved ,411, or 35%, on the shipping container in which Nacho and two motorcycles would travel from Buenos Aires to Malaysia.
When it comes to beauty, Argentina comes up aces. We are envious of its mountains. We are envious of its rivers, streams, and its lakes. We are envious of its gorgeous women and its handsome men with their slender bodies, perfect faces, olive skin, and long, dark, voluptuous hair. But when it comes to its economy, Argentina is in shambles, swirling faster and faster into an uncontrollable toilet dive. For this, we are not envious.
A few years ago, Argentina enjoyed a prosperous economy. Its currency was tied to the US dollar, trading one to one. The Argentine people vacationed to “cheap” places like Europe and the USA. Then, in a series of botched economic moves, Argentina devalued its currency, inflation became rampant, the government went through a bond default, and the people’s bank accounts instantly vaporized. With unbridled inflation, the people began rebuilding their savings in US dollars; by keeping their savings in pesos, they would effectively lose ten, twenty, thirty percent per year due to inflation.
Then, in 2011, the government made it illegal to obtain US dollars in Argentina. This, of course, gave rise to a black market for US currency. When we arrived in Argentina five months ago, the official exchange rate between the peso and dollar was 4.7 to one. Since we had US dollars with us, we were in a position to sell our dollars on the black market to Argentine people who needed them. We made our first sale at 5.875 pesos to one dollar, effectively reducing the price of everything we would buy in Argentina by 25%. We would make a sale every week to keep up with inflation.
Sitting in the money launderer’s bleak office in Buenos Aires five months later, we would make our last trade at 7.5 pesos to one dollar, while the official rate had only risen to 4.9. In five months, the peso had inflated 28%.
Over the course of our stay in Argentina, we would save over $2,000 by selling our dollars to ice cream shop owners, parking lot attendants, auto parts dealers, and money launderers. To use an ATM was to throw perfectly good money in the trash. The rivers and streams are pristine, the lakes and mountains are awe inspiring, the women and men are steamy hot, but there is no hope for Argentina’s economy.
A few weeks prior to arriving in Buenos Aires, we had been in El Chalten, the town at the base of Mount Fitz Roy. While eating breakfast one morning, someone knocked on our door. It was Kevin, a Canadian motorcyclist who reads our blog; he recognized Nacho and came over to say hello. We got to talking, and learned that he and his riding partner, Jan, were also nearing the end of their trip South.
“So what are you doing next?”, he asked.
“Once we get to Buenos Aires we’ll ship Nacho to Malaysia, and then drive from there to Europe,” I said. He considered it for a moment, and then pitched an idea.
“Mind if we come along to Malaysia?”
And just like that, Nacho would have two BMW motorcycles to use as padding in the shipping container for the long crossing to Malaysia.
When we reached Buenos Aires, the four of us rented an apartment in the San Telmo neighborhood. It would serve as our basecamp while we drove around town for shipping broker meetings, customs visits, container loading, and meeting with money launderers. While we were at it, we decided we might as well see what the city had to offer, and to our delight Buenos Aires turned out to be totally excellent.
Day after day we explored the city. In la Boca we admired the urban art and street performers, in San Telmo we explored the antique market and sampled restaurants, we found an extensive beer cave in Microcentro, and explored the most elaborate graveyard on the planet in Recoleta.
On the very last day before loading our shipping container, I decided that Nacho needed some tender loving care. I cleaned our air filter and swapped out our water pump, which was on its last legs. Last, I wanted to give Nacho a bath so that he would be shiny for the new continent. First impressions. I filled a couple of buckets with water, grabbed some dish soap, and went down to the street, where Nacho awaited.
I cleaned up the front, side, and back of the van, and then moved to the last side, which faced the street. I set the bottle of soap on our folding chairs and went to work. A few seconds later I came back around, and found my soap in the planter, and our folding chairs missing.
Some rat bastard had stolen our weather-beaten, dry-rotted, faded, rickety folding chairs right in front of my eyes! He would have had to lug them a half a block before he’d be out of my sight, but I never saw a thing. I asked the bystanders at the bus stop, but they didn’t see anything either. All I could do was shake my head. Why couldn’t people just earn money the honest way, like the money launderer?
Finally, after 24,000 miles of driving through 14 countries over the course of 13 months, we drove Nacho one final time to the port. In our attempt at driving in a westward course around the world, we had finished the first year of driving over 3,000 miles East of where we started. We clearly had a lot of work to do.
As we came to a stop inside of the shipping container, I glanced at the odometer; it read 299,999 miles. The very first order of business when we open the shipping container in Malaysia will be to roll this puppy over to 300k. Sounds like a good omen to the start of a new adventure.
Standing in the cramped bathroom of the Subway sandwich shop, I counted the money: $2,100. I uncrinkled the oil-stained cookie bag that I’d snagged from someone’s tray as I had walked toward the bathroom, and slid the one inch thick stack of twenty dollar bills inside. I folded the oily bag around the stack of money, slid it into my pocket and then stared at my tired, unshaven face in the dirty mirror. I hadn’t done anything this shady since I lent that beleaguered Nigerian Prince my whole life’s savings. But we needed to get across the Darien Gap – the 80 mile long swath of impenetrable, guerilla-ridden jungle separating Panama from Colombia – and it had come to this. The Subway cookie bag was our ticket to freedom.
The only way to cross the Gap with a car is to place the vehicle in a shipping container and retrieve it on the other side. We were teased with the promise of a new ferry service that would connect the two sides, but on the day that we went to the ferry office in Panama City to reserve our spot, they told us that it had been delayed by another month. The next morning we began the dehumanizing process of getting Nacho on a ship.
In the morning our shipping agent emailed us, describing how to find the nondescript building in a Panama City ghetto where our car was to be inspected. (Check here to know how you can prepare yourself for a zero down bad credit car loans). The first step to safely crossing the world’s most deadly stretch of jungle was to drive into an equally deadly ghetto and have a guy look at our engine. The directions weren’t confidence inspiring:
“Go toward Sante Fe hospital and continue as if looking for Albrook…Stay in the left lane when you turn to Santa Fe…and when you see the bridge don’t take it…on the left where there are buildings – ugly buildings hahaha…there in the open ground – where there is construction for roads…this is vehicle control…there will be various automobiles. Climb the ladder to the metal door, announce yourself and open your hood to cool. Important…announce yourself because these are special cowboys…”
Detecting our navigational ineptitude, the agent ultimately met us on the banks of the Panama Canal and led us into the heart of the ghetto herself. After a hair-raising drive through Panama City traffic and an hour sitting in the dirt parking lot surrounded by slums, we were informed that no inspectors had come to work that day.
“Tomorrow they will work,” our agent promised. We would have to venture into the belly of the beast one more time.
The next morning we sat around the ghetto parking lot wiping the egg from our faces after the inspectors failed to materialize again.
“They are in a seminar,” our agent told us, “they will be back at noon”.
“Great, so we’ll just wait until noon and they can inspect our engines when they get here,” I said.
“Not possible. They only inspect engines between 10 and 11. Noon is not between 10 and 11.” We had to remember that this was Latin America, where things don’t always happen in a logical fashion. Inspecting our engines at noon would cut into lunch, and if lunch were pushed back, it would cut into the 2-hour afternoon naptime. That would inevitably cause issues with the period of late afternoon lazing around. Don’t rock the boat. Monday was only 3 days away.
Before we left the ghetto, I decided to give away a pair of Sheena’s old running shoes. I saw a crazy man in a wheelchair without any shoes in front of one of the slum buildings, so I called to him to see if he wanted them.
“Man, I’ll take the shoes, but I can’t wear ’em.”
I didn’t want them to be sold, or else traded for crack, so I decided to give him 50 cents instead. I couldn’t just leave him hanging, so I ducked through the chain link fence and handed him two quarters. He dropped them into his lap and then snapped his head back quickly, staring straight into my soul with his crazy Jack Black eyes. He started making shapes with his mouth, flexing every muscle in his stringy face. I thought he might be having a heart attack. Suddenly he started scratching at his chest and somehow managed to wrestle his shirt off. He reminded me of a swamp rat. He still hadn’t muttered a word since taking my quarters. Before I had time to retreat, he started waving his arms around slowly while shifting his eyes from side to side. His arms snapped into a karate chop to one side, then the other. Several tai-chi moves culminated in a series of fast karate chops at an invisible enemy.
His eyes again locked on mine and it looked like he was in deep thought. Although his hands were still stiff and weapon-like, he had forgotten about the karate. Slowly his head tilted back, he closed his eyes, and opened his mouth wide like a wounded spider monkey. He winced hard as he mouthed silent screams into the air while clubbing at his bare chest. His head straightened and he looked at me again.
“Muy impresionante,” I said. What the hell else was I supposed to say? I took a few timid steps backwards and then hurriedly ducked back through the chain link fence to the relative safety of our ghetto parking lot.
The process of getting Nacho onto a ship became a series of long waits punctuated by hurried, stressful visits to various customs offices, government buildings, and port officials. During the periods of waiting, we did our best to fill our time exploring Panama City. Our guide to the city was Ciro, whose exceptionally pleasant mother operated Jamraka, our homestay on the edge of the city. With Ciro we explored the inner workings of Casco Viejo, the colonial portion of the city. We dined at street carts serving up plates of rice and barbecued pork, explored the district’s bars, and spent one evening on a rooftop terrace overlooking the city with a film crew celebrating its completion of a Panamanian beer commercial.
Over the weekend, after two unsuccessful attempts at finding the inspectors at work, we opted to tempt fate by taking Nacho on a road trip to the abandoned fort at San Lorenzo, and to the small Caribbean town of Portobelo. Bearing in mind that Nacho had just suffered a long string of breakdowns, we threw caution to the wind and loaded the van with our road tripping crew; Ciro, our new friends Margaret and Madison, Sheena and me; and hit the road.
After driving across the width of the isthmus from Panama City to Colón, we turned westward and followed a string of dilapidated roads through an abandoned military base and into the dense jungle. We crossed the Panama Canal below the enormous gates of the Gatún Lock while four foot long fish jumped like dolphins in the turbulent water, once again proving that the Caribbean is well endowed with fish compared to its scant Pacific counterpart. Winding through the jungle on the approach to San Lorenzo we followed an anteater before it ducked into the undergrowth. We ended the perfect day by eating seafood while overlooking the bay at Portobelo.
While our time in Panama City was spent waiting for inspectors to do their jobs, in Colon it was our shipping agent who no longer felt like working. “Be at the Super 99 at 8:30 sharp so Boris can meet you and take you to the port.” Our instructions were clear, so we awoke bright and early for the hour drive.
When we arrived at the Super 99 in Colon’s seedy center, right on time, Boris was nowhere in sight. After 30 minutes we called him.
“I will be there at 11:00,” he said. At this I reminded him that he was supposed to meet us at 8:30, and that we preferred not to sit in the parking lot for two and a half hours. “Yes, but the port doesn’t open until 11:00,” he said.
“Boris, we still have to go to customs before we can go to the port,” I reminded him. “Okay, okay, I will come at 10:00.” This Boris was not making a good impression on me, nor the rest of my shipping partners; Mark, the Canadian who I was to share a container with; Bart, the Dutch legume salesman; and Alejandro, the Mexican lady’s man who was making the trip to Argentina in a clapped out minivan, and was paying for his trip by selling postcards along the way (“In Nicaragua nobody would buy my postcards, so I make a fire show in the street.”)
By 10:15 there was no sign of Boris. I called him and got his voicemail. For the next several hours I continued to call him, but he never answered. Finally, at 1:00, he picked up his phone. “Oh hi, are you at the port or at customs?” he asked. “Boris!” I yelled, “We’re still in the damn parking lot, REMEMBER!? We’ve been here for five hours!” At this he acted surprised and promised to have one of his guys pick us up. Ten minutes later a man showed up on a motorcycle to lead us to the customs office.
The unwritten laws of inefficiency in Latin America would dictate that our simple tasks at the customs office would not go smoothly. First, it was discovered that Alejandro had accidentally overstayed his visa. Next, Mark was accused of forging the stamp on his car importation permit. Each was demanded to pay $250. Of course they refused, and an hour long debate ensued. Arms flew into the air, sad faces were shown, pleas were made, several calls were made, and ultimately Alejandro’s bribe was reduced to $10. They also agreed that, in fact, Mark hadn’t forged his import stamp. At 4:30 we emerged from the customs office, ready to drive our cars into their containers.
“It’s 4:30, you’re too late. You must load the containers tomorrow” our moto guide told us. At this we became furious. Our shipping agent, through laziness, had forced us to miss our time for loading the containers, and we would have to grab a hotel in Colón. An angry phone call to Boris ensued, but he played innocent. Mark, Bart and I split a hotel while Alejandro raced the minivan back to Panama City to party the night away.
The next day unfolded in much the same way as the first; we waited for an hour for our motorcycle escort to show up, after which time he escorted us a few hundred yards before waving us on without him. At the port we waited for another hour for another motorcycle man to show up, and then once he showed up we waited longer while he talked to people. Finally in the afternoon we loaded our containers and locked them up for the short trip to Cartagena.
After waiting for an hour while yet another moto man brought us a handwritten receipt for our container fees, we took a taxi back to the seedy parking lot in Colón’s center followed by our moto guide. After going to the ATM it was time to pay our dues. We walked into the Subway restaurant and bought some drinks. I snagged an oily cookie bag off of someone’s tray and walked into the bathroom.
When I emerged I looked at Luis, our motorcycle guide, and gave him a nod. He followed me out the front door and we stood on the curb, looking out into the parking lot.
“Do you have the money?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s in my pocket.”
“Do not let anyone see it. They will rob me if they know I carry money.” Truth be told, this was one of the nastiest cities I’d ever been in. I didn’t blame the guy for his caution.
“Did you count it?” he asked.
“Yes, I counted it. Do you want to count it?” It was feeling more and more like a dirty drug deal.
“No, I won’t count it. I trust you.” We stared at the parking lot. Timidly, I pulled the oily bag from my pocket and slyly handed it to Luis. He didn’t look at me. He slowly strode to his bike, pulled his helmet on, gave me a quick nod, and sped away down the dilapidated street, weaving through traffic.
The taxi ride from the Subway to the bus station was like a trip into the ravaged center of Mogadishu or Kabul. Choose your favorite bombed out third world capital. Cracked buildings were held together by plaster, clothing hung from every window, trash piles littered every open space, and people hobbled around like injured hobos.
“This is the RED zone, man! You don’t WALK here! You get yo self ROBBED…or SHOT!” Our elderly taxi driver was from Panama, but had spent his life in Texas and his accent was proof of it. He continued to murmur his warnings as we weaved past the bombed out building carcasses. “ROBBED!…or SHOT!…the RED zone…”
All of a sudden there was a gap in the bombed out buildings and there stood the Colón bus station. Our taxi driver steered over to a group of police officers and cracked his window.
“These guys need to get on the BUS! They’re FOREIGNERS!” At this we got out of the taxi and were shrouded by the police officers. One of them signaled to us to cross the street, and he flanked us on one side as we crossed, rapidly moving his head around in all directions to keep watch. As we got to the other side of the two lane street, he ushered us onto a waiting bus and slammed the door behind us. He had literally escorted us 15 feet. We sunk into the seats for the long haul back to Panama City.
Central America, it’s been fun.