Feb 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 16 Comments

Cha Cha Chamula!

We pushed ourselves into the mass of bodies while the uneasy shriek produced by hundreds of horns created a feeling as though something bad were about to happen.  In a large circle in the plaza in front of the church, men in elaborate traditional Mayan dress acted out a battle themed march whose phases unfolded throughout the day.  The first row of men would run ahead, brandishing wooden switches, then leap into the air, bringing their switches to the ground with a loud thwack! The rest followed closely behind, using their horns to make the eerie shriek.  A continuous stream of rockets made explosions that shook the ground.  It didn’t feel like any festival we’d ever been to.  Looking around, we seemed to be the only white people in the entire town.  Around us, thousands of Mayan descendants looked on with somber, serious faces.  Nobody was smiling. We felt unseasy.

Courtesy of www.cieloytierratours.com

A young Mayan man came over to us, looked up to me, and asked me something.  I couldn’t catch everything due to his thick Tzotzil accent, but he seemed to want to bring us somewhere.  I told him we were happy where we were.  Before he walked away he slapped the back of his hand on my chest and looked deep into my eyes, his face very serious.  He stood on his toes to bring his face closer to mine.  “Ten cuidado”, he said in a clear and serious tone.  Be careful. He turned and walked away.

We were in Chamula, a town at 7,200 feet above sea level in the mountains outside of San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas.  Chamula and other mountain towns in Chiapas are home to the direct descendants of the Maya, and to the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), more commonly known as Zapatista rebels.  Taking pictures of people, or within the church in Chamula is illegal and can get you on the wrong end of a group beating.  It is the only town in Mexico with autonomous status, meaning that they make up their own laws, and Mexican police and military aren’t allowed to enter the town.  Needless to say, I didn’t take any pictures, so all of the pictures in this post are borrowed.

Courtesy of www.mexicoenfotos.com

Inside of the church, the explosions shook the walls, while the shrieking horns were muffled into a perfect horror film soundtrack.  The scene inside the church was something from centuries past, almost supernatural.  Thousands of candles filled the floor and every flat surface, the smoke of burning pine billowed up from a fire that lay smoldering on the floor near a shrine tended by two women, filling the place with a thick haze.  The entire floor was covered in a thick layer of pine needles, giving us the feeling that we’d stepped back in time a thousand years.  A man stood in the center of the church weeping inconsolably, speaking in Tzotzil, a Mayan dialect.  He alternated his hand between his forehead and his chest, stricken with grief.

A family sat in the middle of the church floor wearing traditional tribal clothing, a hundred candles unlit in front of them.  The pine needles tangled in the women’s matted goat hide skirts, the children leaned against their mothers.  A shaman sat with them wearing a white goat hide vest, its wool poking wildly in all directions.  A chicken sat on the floor with them, a plastic bag restricting its wings.  Four glass bottles of Coca Cola rested in front of the women.  One by one the family lit the candles and for several minutes we watched them staring into the flames, speaking quietly.  Suddenly the man picked up the chicken and snapped its neck; it flailed wildly, its head limply hanging from its body.  The man held its legs still while the life faded from it, and then he placed its body on the floor near the candles.  Its body produced an occasional twitch.  One of the women picked up each Coke bottle in turn and waved it over the flames.  The sacrifice of the chicken saddened and shocked us, but the feeling was mixed with a sense that we were catching a glimpse of something ancient.  Here were the direct descendents of the Maya, still sacrificing animals and carrying out their rituals.  Dominican missionaries forced them to accept Catholicism, but it was clear today that they accepted it with their hands behind their backs, fingers crossed.

Courtesy of www.suzpaseos.blogspot.com

Feeling shaky from what we saw in the church, the billowing smoke, the candles, and the Mayan faces ringed with emotion, we emerged into the throngs of people filling the vast central square.  During the time that we spent in the church, things had intensified.  The shrieking horns were being blown with greater vigor and the warriors moved more quickly around the circuit.  New characters had joined the promenade, holding pots containing smoldering pine, which gave the zocalo the same smoky aura as the inside of the church.  The shrieks, the smoke, the explosions, and the increase in tempo created a sense of impending calamity.  The men were running now.  We pushed ourselves back into the throngs so that we could see into the center of the commotion.

Courtesy of www.todocoleccion.net

Suddenly from a side street, a long line of men wearing goat hide vests sprinted into the square pulling a long rope.  Attached to the rope was an enormous angry bull.  It kicked wildly and swung its head trying to impale its captors with its horns.  As the bull passed by in front of us it lurched for the crowd.  Everyone recoiled as it passed, while the brave and the drunk ran toward the bull and tried to ride it.  Time and again the bull would toss the riders to the ground, and at one point it successfully gouged a rider with its horn.

As time went on, four more bulls were brought into the plaza, creating total havoc.  Women and children curled up in the corners of open air food stalls as the bulls passed.  Frequently the bulls jumped onto the sidewalks and tried to impale bystanders.  Everyone remained serious and kept the emotion out of their faces.  Two boys tried walking along the sidewalk in front of us toward a waiting bull, and one of the warriors ran in front of them, striking the ground at their feet with his wooden stick.  They tried walking around and he advanced, jumped in the air, and brought his switch onto the ground at their feet again, creating a loud crack.  He got up and stared into their eyes.  There was no longer any confusion about where they were not to tread.

At the end of the day we shakily made our way back to the top of the hill on the edge of town to catch a collectivo.  Seventeen of us piled into a 1970’s Volkswagen van and then its teenage driver sped away, down the steep and twisting mountain road back to San Cristobal.  We heard later that a couple of tourists had been chased down by a group of warriors with their wooden sticks for having taken a photograph.  We didn’t hear if they got away.

This is why we quit our jobs and left the comfort of home.  To discover a world that we didn’t know existed.  To wander into Zapatista villages, to run away from angry bulls, to witness Mayan rituals, and to occasionally leap completely out of our comfort zone.  Am I happy to be out of the mountains and writing this post safely from the comfort of a Caribbean beach?  Well, yes.

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Feb 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 12 Comments

Oaxaca Pilgrimage

Before we left on our trip, people used to ask us what city in Mexico we were most looking forward to.  No brainer: Oaxaca.  In our minds it was a quaint food lover’s paradise.  We imagined strolling around, sampling mole, eating at the best street carts in all of Mexico, and giving casual high fives to Rick Bayless.  Everyone we asked in Mexico prior to arriving in Oaxaca had egged us on. “What’s your favorite town in Mexico?” we would ask.  “Oaxaca!” they would scream.

As we entered Oaxaca state, two things changed; the topes were no longer painted, making it nearly impossible to avoid the Nacho-killing road hazards, and the verb tense on the anti-litter road signs changed from the third person formal to the second person informal.  “No tires basura”.  Google Maps said the trip from San Miguel de Allende would last 9 hours, 3 minutes. A mere 19.5 hours of driving later, we arrived in Oaxaca city and staked our claim at the campground. The first thing we saw when we got off the bus at the food market in downtown Oaxaca city, after noting the eardrum-piercing noise of the place, was a very dirty Aboriginal-looking black man lumbering out of the raw meat section of the market without any pants on.

“I don’t think he’s supposed to be doing that”, Sheena whispered.

Apparently the road signs aren’t the only thing in Oaxaca that had gone informal.

To our dismay, Oaxaca was the polar opposite of our expectations.  We passed the nude-bottomed man just as we entered the market.  After swallowing the vomit from that encounter, we were met with the stench of a hundred kinds of rotting meat.  The tables were stacked high with parched, fly-laden, wretchedly stinking chicken, beef, pork, and sausages.  It’s a miracle that I didn’t ralph up the rest of my breakfast.  The city’s apparent specialty snack is the chapulin, or fried grasshopper; a food that Mexican health officials agree is a serious health hazard due to its exceedingly high lead content, but don’t know what to do about it.  The halls of the food market are packed with baskets full of the fried heavy metal insects.

Still believing that Oaxaca would pull through for us, we made for the market’s food stalls.  Nothing looked very appetizing, but we wandered over the stand with the most Mexicans at it and ordered per the waiter’s recommendation.  The pollo con mole was mediocre, and the chicken soup was palatable, but boring.  Dinner was no exception; we spent two thirds of our daily budget on dinner at a place overlooking the zocalo, or central square, but went away disappointed.  On the bright side, our dinner table was situated on the second floor at an open window, which gave us a nice vantage point to watch the very picturesque zocalo while a band played and people strolled.

After a mere day and a half in Oaxaca city things weren’t improving, so we decided to cut our losses and head out to the surrounding smaller towns.  We’re not big on complaining, but given our Mecca-like expectations for Oaxaca, I thought this was a worthy exception.  So far we’re the only people we know who have felt this way about Oaxaca.  More than anything it reaffirmed our distaste for big cities.

The surrounding towns turned out to be more rewarding.   First we headed out to San Martin Tilcajete, a town of just over a thousand inhabitants, where the locals specialize in carving and painting wooden figurines.  Ever the figurine lover, Sheena couldn’t help herself and popped for a small wooden pig.  Our beer and coffee cabinet is getting empty, so Sheena has decided that a better use for it is to store various miniature animals and other artisanal doo dads in it.  Until we arrive in a country with good beer, I’ve decided to let her go wild.

Next we made our way back into Oaxaca city to get the final installment of our hepatitis A and B vaccinations.  This involved going to a hospital, where we had to procure surgical masks in order to be let inside – quite a good idea we thought – and then had a consultation with a doctor.  He didn’t have the right vaccinations, as hepatitis shots aren’t normally given to Mexican adults, so he sent us deeper into the city where we got our shots at a vaccination specialist.

The final stop on our Oaxaca whirlwind tour was the town of Teotitlan, where the specialty is weaving.  We found a B&B that would let us camp in their courtyard, use their showers, their bathrooms, and their kitchen for around $5 per night.

By day, the air was filled with the sound of a Mexican band marching through the empty streets.  We saw them pass by a few times, apparently playing to nobody.  Later we saw that they had made their way onto the roof of the church, where they continued playing their songs before eventually coming down to eat ice cream popsicles in the shadow of the church.  The randomness of the whole ordeal seemed to be the planking equivalent of marching bands.  Teotitlan was quite nice, and we ended up staying two nights.  Oh, and in the interest of acquiring more local handicrafts, we bought a naturally-dyed and hand woven wool rug for Nacho.

While we had tentatively planned to spend at least four days in Oaxaca, we weren’t enjoying ourselves so we left.  All in all Mexico has far exceeded our expectations, and there have only been a small handful of places we haven’t liked.  If Rick Bayless had been there to give us a high five, maybe things would have turned out differently.

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Feb 2012

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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

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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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