Mar 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 24 Comments

Doing Time in Guatemala – 1,989 Words to Freedom

On our map, the road to Sibol looked like a highway.  In reality it was a potholed, muddy dirt track that threaded itself like a needle through dramatic mountain spires jutting up through dense rainforest.  We put Nacho in first gear and slowly clambered through the mud and rocks.  Once in Sebol, we planned to head south to the town of Semuc Champay where we would bask in clear pools and explore a network of caves.

After two hours of slow dirt road crawling, we arrived at pavement.  We put Nacho in third gear and sailed through the torrential rain into the tiny pueblo of Fray Bartolomé.  Moments later, a metal-on-metal whooshing sound erupted from Nacho’s left rear wheel.  As we came to a stop in a mud puddle the wheel let out a groan.  Our hearts sank; for the second time in a month the driver’s side rear wheel bearing had failed.

We were hosed.  I had used up all of my spare bearings in Mexico, so we would have to rely on locals to find new bearings for us.  I looked across the street: the sign in front of a simple cinderblock building read Hotel Fontana H.  Two buildings away was a mecanico filled with broken down chicken buses and beat up trucks.  It could have been worse; we could have broken down in a Mayan shantytown, or worse, in the middle of nowhere.  Mari, the caretaker of the hotel, would later tell us that Dios had sent us to break down in front of her hotel.  I made a mental note to write a harshly worded letter to this Dios of whom she spoke.

We started the engine and slowly crept across the street to the mechanic.  He took the hub apart and verified again that indeed the rear wheel bearing was destroyed.

“Can you get parts?” I asked.

“I’m not sure, but I’ll try.  It could be three, four days.” he said.  This was not a good sign.  Four days in Latin-American time could be six weeks!  He let us plug the van into their electrical outlet in the shop since we wouldn’t get any solar energy there, and then we gathered our things and sulked over to the hotel where we fell heavily onto our dingy mattresses.  My mood sunk to an all time low for the trip.  Sheena entered the beginning stages of a near-nervous breakdown.  The stained shower curtain separating the toilet from our room hung limply in the dank air, oblivious to our mood.

We collected our wits and headed out to a run down comedor next to the mechanic called Restaurante Manatí for a late lunch.  I ordered the standard Central American lunch staple of grilled chicken with rice and beans, while Sheena ordered a bowl of soup.  We tried to find the bright side.  Everything was going to be fine.  We would get Nacho fixed…some day.  We would be done with mechanical issues…until next month.  Our hotel was cheap, so we were saving money.  Nothing really seemed to elevate our mood.  We asked for the bill.

“Señor, how much do we owe?”

“It is 320 Quetzales.” He said.

“320 Quetzales!?” I said, startled.  That’s $42.  The typical daily wage for a Guatemalan worker is between 35 and 73 Quetzales.  Our hotel was 85Q per night, and a typical lunch in a restaurant will set you back 15Q.  “That’s a lot of money for lunch!”

“The chicken is 50 and the soup is 200.  Your drinks were 70, so it’s 320 total.”

We hadn’t inquired about the unlisted prices before ordering, and quickly realized that he was robbing us.  There was nothing we could do once we exhausted our bewildered inquiries.  We had to pay him.  In writing this post well after the fact, I wish I could report that this was an isolated incident, but it was not.  In Guatemala, and in no other country we’ve been to thus far, merchants repeatedly tried to take advantage of us.  After having more experience with dishonest Guatemalan vendors I would have certainly handled this situation differently if I were able to do it again.

We returned to our hotel exhausted, infuriated, and overwhelmed.  Overland travel has its highs and its lows.  This was a very low low.

The next morning I went to the mechanic for news on our bearings.  He had put in a request with his suppliers in Guatemala City and was waiting to hear back.  When I arrived I noticed that Nacho had been unplugged from the electrical outlet.  I went to ask why when I noticed that the outlet where it had been plugged in was blackened and melted.  I looked at our extension cord and saw that it too was melted, and had welded itself to Nacho’s electrical hookup.

“Last night there was an electrical storm.”  It was the mechanic, approaching from behind a building.  “The security guard called me and I came over.  There was smoke coming out of the wall so I unplugged your cord.”

I quickly went inside of Nacho and checked the electrical panel.  The 110V breaker hadn’t tripped for some inexplicable reason, meaning that the wiring inside of the van had probably been destroyed as well.  I found the multimeter and checked.  Sure enough, there was continuity between all three leads.  Like us, our wiring was hosed.  By some stroke of luck Nacho hadn’t gone up in flames.  I made a note-to-self to try to find a surge protector if we ever became free from this hell.

I found a screwdriver and removed the hookup from the outside of the van, allowing me to peer behind the cabinets.  I could see a melted mess of wires leading behind the water tanks.  I could also see that the scorching hot wires had melted through one of our drinking water lines.

I decided not to go back and report this news to Sheena for fear that I’d trip her over the edge into a raging nervous breakdown.  Instead I took a tuk-tuk to the gas station and bought a new extension cord and some 110V wiring.  I spent the rest of the day dissecting Nacho’s interior, rewiring the 110VAC electrical system, and patching our severed water line.  By the end of the day it was back to normal.  I returned to the hotel with all of our food so that we wouldn’t have to run the refrigerator.  There was still no sign of wheel bearings anywhere in the country.

As the days passed we made friends with the family that ran the hotel.  It started with high fives and knuckle bumps with Debora and Jordi, the children, when we would pass them in the reception area.  Soon we were having conversations with Rodolfo and Mari, the parents, while the kids watched cartoons.  After a while congregating in the reception area became our daily ritual.

Mari was happy to show Sheena how to make tortillas in the hotel’s makeshift outdoor kitchen, and told us why they had come to Fray.  In her home town she tried to sell tortillas on the street, but was unable to sell the 30 tortillas per day required to make ends meet.  The people there were too poor to buy them.  She was equally dismayed to find out that the Manití had charged us ten times her daily wage for lunch.

On our third night we decided to make the family a nice dinner.  We walked down to the Dispensa Familiar and bought supplies for shrimp risotto and one of Sheena’s killer salads.  In Guatemala we’d been having a hard time finding ample vegetables to eat, or really much of anything besides the typical meat and beans staples, so we really splurged.  For the shrimp risotto we bought broccoli, peas and Argentine wine.  For the salad toppings: walnuts, strawberries, avocado, apples, broccoli, tomatoes, cheese, raisins, and almonds.  On the side we would have some of the fresh tortillas that Sheena and Mari made.

While we cooked the children stood on boxes so they could watch.  They periodically snatched strawberries and broccoli, stuffing them into their mouths.  It was clear that they too were craving some fresh fruits and vegetables.  While the risotto simmered they showed us their favorite dances.  First, a rudimentary version of the tango.

Next, as Jordi put it, “I’m dancing with my legs!”  This basically entailed holding his upper body straight while stepping around with spaghetti legs.  Debora loved it as much as we did.

Dinner delivered much needed nourishment and reminded us of how fortunate we are to have good food available to us so ubiquitously back home.  Mari and Rodolfo had never tried walnuts or broccoli before.  They each had seconds and thirds, and then asked to keep some of the leftovers.  The next day Rodolfo asked if we could make the salad again.  For the next few days every time we heard them on the phone they spent considerable time recounting the meal.  “The gringos…shrimp in the rice…Argentine wine…salad with nuts…”

On the third day I returned to the mechanic to see about the progress.  “They have found some bearings.  They will arrive tomorrow at the gas station on a bus from Guatemala City.”  It seemed too good to be true.  That night we celebrated over a dinner of fried chicken with rice and beans that Rodolfo and Mari cooked for us.

On the final day I walked in the shop just as the mechanic was reassembling Nacho’s hub.  I had ordered an extra set of bearings so that we would have a spare on hand, but there was bad news.  When the new bearings arrived at the gas station, the gas station attendant had taken the initiative to help us out by pressing the bearings into the hub using his hammer press.  When the mechanic picked them up he found that the use of a hammer had completely destroyed the bearings.  He had to remove them and use the spare set instead.  In the end we were really lucky to have ordered two sets; if we hadn’t we would have been stuck in Fray Bartolomé for even longer.  On the downside, we still don’t have a backup set of bearings.

As the mechanic put the finishing touches on the hub, I took some time to do an oil change and a tire rotation.  The mechanic asked a young boy who had been watching us to help me rotate my tires.  It turned out that he actually worked there.

“How old are you”, I asked.

“Thirteen”, he replied.

“Do you go to school too, or do you just work?”

He looked at me as he jacked up the front of the car, his eyes giving away a hint of melancholy.  “I only work.”

That night we thought a lot about the privileges afforded to us simply by being born in the United States.  We had enjoyed carefree childhoods.  The worst part of each summer was the act of back to school shopping, marking the momentary end to fort building, sleepovers, and back yard baseball games.  We had grown up taking family vacations to the beach and to amusement parks.  Neither Rodolfo nor Mari had ever been out of the small region in Guatemala where they were born.  I went on a school trip to Peru when I was twelve.

The next morning we said goodbye to our new friends.  Mari told us that the kids would probably cry for a long time once we left.  Rodolfo jokingly offered to give us one of them as a gift.  At that, Mari asked us to wait and went into her room.  She came back with a ceramic angel with a broken wing.

“I wanted to give you this gift so that you will never forget us.”

Driving away from the Hotel Fintana H. filled us with relief to finally be free.  But then again, we’ve been free all along.  Sometimes we just take it for granted.

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Mar 2012

Blog, Central America


The Guatemalan Adventures of Indiana Van Orden

Up until a couple of years ago, I spent my days as a medical products design engineer.  The best days were spent in the lab testing design iterations and new materials.  Most days, however, were spent parked in front of a computer designing the products, writing test plans, communicating with vendors, writing reports, or analyzing test results.  On the odd day when the computer system would go down in a storm, operations would come to a screeching halt.  When we arrived at the Guatemalan border that old feeling returned.  The computer system had crashed and we would have to wait indefinitely.

For the next couple of hours we sat with a fellow stranded traveler, a Mennonite farmer.  His family farmed rice in Belize, but export taxes imposed by Belize, combined with America’s subsidies for imported Asian rice, had made it impossible for him to make a living farming rice in Belize.  He was thus relocating his family to Guatemala where labor and export taxes were cheaper, which would allow them to continue farming.  As rough as we may think we have it sometimes, at least we don’t have to relocate our families to a developing country just to stay above water.

We finally made our way through customs as the sun went down, and then found a camp spot in the yard of a hotel a few yards from the border.  By morning we were on our way to Tikal.

The first hour the following morning was on a road that remained largely unpaved, so we put Nacho in first gear and sat back for the long haul.  This exercise has become far too common these days; slowly creeping along for hours on end in first gear.  Soon enough we arrived at the gates for Tikal, one of the most elaborate and extensive Mayan ruins in existence.

Since we had arrived at the peak of the afternoon heat, we figured we’d set up camp in the grassy camping area and rest until evening.  When the afternoon heat passed, we headed out for a hike, having decided that we’d hit the ruins first thing in the morning before it got hot.  It wouldn’t be so.  As we passed the guard shack we were stopped and asked for our tickets to see the ruins.

“We’re just going for a hike in the jungle.  We’re going to use our tickets to see the ruins in the morning.”

“Oh no, you have to use the tickets today.  They’re only good for one day.”

“But we will use them for only one day.  We’ll use them for tomorrow.”

“I can sell you more tickets for tomorrow, but you will have to pay full price.  These tickets will be no good.”

After having been put in a bad mood by the “foreigner” price, which was over five times the “local” price, things were only getting worse.  “So you’d like for us to pay the full foreigner price again, meaning that we will have paid the price of twelve local person tickets, just to see the ruins one time?  Why can’t you can just reissue us some tickets for tomorrow?”

The guards conferred, and then the one of them approached me as if he had a good idea.  “Tell you what.  You can just pay him the price for two more full price tickets, and you’ll be able to enter the park at 4:00 AM and spend all day looking at the ruins.”

We had no choice but to spend the last two and a half hours of the day looking at the ruins.  We didn’t have much time, so we hurried through as much as we could before the sun went down and the park closed.  The area contained a vast collection of pyramids and buildings, which used to support a community of over 100,000 inhabitants.

The following day we woke up early so we could do our hike in the jungle.  We had heard that there were some hiking trails but weren’t sure where to find them.  As we walked along a path leading toward the ruins we saw a small trail ducking under some vines and disappearing into the jungle.  It looked like a hiking trail to us, so we took it.

After a few minutes we came across a long concrete building in a clearing.  As we scoped it out we saw two men come out of the jungle carrying machetes.  They seemed to be guides for the park.  One of them called out to us.

“Are you looking for the ruins?  You should be careful, it’s very dangerous in the jungle.”

“What do you mean?  Are there dangerous animals?”

“Not really, but it’s very easy to get lost.”

We thanked him for the advice and found another trail that disappeared into the dense vines and walked on.  Heeding the guard’s warning, we devised a nearly fool proof method of not getting lost in the jungle; every time we came to a junction, we made a wooden arrow showing us how to get back the way we came.  As long as there weren’t any malicious people or monkeys behind us, we ought to be in good shape.

Our trek took us down several trails before dropping us onto a rough dirt road.  We followed the road for a while until we saw a place where two faint tire tracks could be made out heading off into the jungle in a different direction.  We took these, but they petered out after about a half an hour of walking.  It looked like two or three Jeeps had ever made it to where we were.

Finally, as we began to consider turning back, the outline of blocks in the undergrowth caught our eye.  In some places it looked like someone had shoveled away a few inches of topsoil to uncover the outlines of some buried structures.  We walked into the undergrowth, away from the tire tracks, and found more blocks forming the outlines of rooms; in all we found ten or twelve rooms.  It appeared to be a residential area where there must have been many homes.  We had stumbled into an unexcavated Mayan ruin.

On the way back we thought about how many ruins must be hidden in the jungle around Tikal.  For a site with so many enormous temples and gathering places, there must have been extensive residential areas sprawling out beyond the excavated center.  As we discussed this, Sheena froze in the path.  Her eyes grew into cue balls, her lungs filled, and her breathing stopped.  Her mouth formed into the ecstatic smile of a crazy person.  I looked ahead in the path and saw the object of her elation: a miniature deer.  It was like a normal deer, but it was the size of a whippet.  When it saw Sheena’s crazy eyes it turned and walked into the jungle on its pencil-thin legs.

For the next few minutes the conversation shifted to Sheena’s new favorite animal.

“You know, I’ve always wanted to see a miniature deer”, she said, matter-of-factly.

“I didn’t even know they existed.  How long could you have possibly wanted to see one?”

“Oh, many years.”

In the end, despite the negative impressions on our first day, we enjoyed our time at Tikal.  Our jungle excursion gave us an opportunity that most Tikal visitors don’t get to experience.  It was like going to Disneyland and finding a ride that nobody else had ever seen before, except that there weren’t any pedophiles dressed up as cartoon animals lurking about.  And best of all, Sheena got to fulfill her many years long dream of spotting a mini deer.

We’re trying to keep in mind that things won’t always go our way.  But just because things aren’t going our way, it doesn’t mean that they won’t turn out to be better in the end.

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Mar 2012

Blog, Central America


Hudut and Cheating Evolution in Belize

If there’s one thing we can say about Belize after having spent a little more than a week there, it’s that the people are, as a whole, some of the happiest and friendliest we’ve come across in our travels thus far.  When we arrived in the coastal town of Placencia on our second day, we asked a group of locals where we might find a camping spot.

“Yeah mon! You could prob’y camp in ya van at my gromma’s house!  Hey Priscilla, take these two ova to my gromma’s house and ask if dey can camp ova der. When ya get ya van situated, come on back an’ we can drink an’ smoke togetha!”

When we were unable to navigate Nacho into the guy’s grandmother’s yard due to low tree branches we tried two other locals.  One said we could camp in his front yard for free, although we kindly declined because it didn’t offer much privacy, and another engaged us in an hour long conversation about Belizean national pride, although he didn’t have a place for us to camp.  In the end we opted to stay closer to the town of Seine Bight where we had seen an actual campground.  All the while, everyone we passed on the roadside flashed a huge grin at us and waved.

We spent most of our time in Belize on the Caribbean coast between the towns of Placencia, Seine Bight, and Hopkins.  We split our first few nights between the campground near Seine Bight and a spot at the Jungle Jeanie lodge in Hopkins.

Placencia is a small village at the tip of a long, skinny peninsula with equal parts indigenous Garifuna culture and foreign tourism.  We had a good time hopping between restaurants and bars and hanging out with our campground brethren, but soon had our fill and headed off to Hopkins.

Hopkins seemed to better fit our style; to get there it required navigation of a rough dirt road, and the main street in town was mostly dirt.  These obstacles have kept it slightly less discovered by tourism, and hence it seemed to retain its Garifuna culture slightly more so than Placencia.  Still, it had been outfitted with enough decent bars and eateries to keep us entertained for a few days.

One evening we had hoped to try some Indian food at what would have been our first Indian restaurant since leaving home.  Unfortunately it was closed, so we opted to try one of the only places open that night: a foreign-owned place called Love on the Rocks.  The idea is that you order an expensive fish dinner and then they bring it out to you uncooked along with a really hot ass rock.  You then put your uncooked fish on the hot ass rock, where it proceeds to get stuck to the rock and burn the hell out of itself while you desperately try to get it unstuck with your fork.  All the while the waitress stands there staring at you while you struggle.  Finally, you eat your overcooked rubbery fish while the stuck fishy bits that remain on the rock turn into a smoldering black mess.  Sheena thought it was awesome, as did several others we met in Hopkins, but I found it all very asinine.  If I wanted to cook my own fish, I would have stayed home.  And I certainly wouldn’t have cooked it on a really hot ass rock.

The good part about the rock ordeal was that a Garifuna drumming group was playing.  The Garifuna are an indigenous group in the area who are known for, among other things, their hand drumming.  They’re also known for a really tasty fish curry called hudut.  Instead of incinerating the fish on a really hot ass rock, they make a curry out of coconut milk (which they make by hand) and pureed plantains, and then stew fish in it.  It’s served with cassava bread and mashed plantains, and it’s absolutely transcendent.  I know this because we tried it the following night at a local place called Innie’s.  But I digress.  Click the button below the picture to listen to a bit of the drumming, which I recorded at the hot ass rock place.

[audio:http://www.drivenachodrive.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Garifuna-Drummers-Hopkins-Belize.mp3|titles=Garifuna Drummers – Hopkins Belize]

Finally on our last day, after having waited out some rainy weather for a couple of days, we tagged along with a boat that was headed out for a day of snorkeling and fishing.  We both knew that if I was going to catch a fish at all on this continent, I was going to need some professional help.  Our group included Patrick the Belizean boat captain, and two other couples.  We would go several miles out to the barrier reef (the second largest in the world) where there would be more to look at than in the murky water closer to shore.

As we made our way out of the Sittee River into the Caribbean, the weather wasn’t looking promising.  Storm clouds still filled the sky, and rain could be seen falling into the sea in the distance.  Several miles offshore, as we approached the first barrier islands, it started to rain.  Patrick steered the boat to one of the islands where we disembarked and took shelter under the thatched eve of a vacant hut.  Once the rain passed we boarded the boat and headed into a shallow cove to net some sardines.  If I was going to break my bad luck fishing streak, we were going to need some serious bait.

Patrick’s magic bait worked wonders.  Within half an hour we had reeled in several barracudas.  Later we pulled in a couple of triggerfish (which are protected, so we released them), and a couple of red snappers.  As our friend James from Home on the Highway was quick to point out, fishing from a boat is cheating.  I would tend to agree, but we have to remember that I’ve discovered through nearly three months of field research that it’s impossible to catch a fish from the shore. This indicates that I’ve been fighting a war in a place where my adversaries don’t even live.  Through the miracle of internal combustion I was able to bring my fight to the battlefield.  We won’t call it cheating, we’ll call it mechanical assistance.

Oh, and the snorkeling?  The name “snorkeling” sounds ludicrous.  Swimming around with fake webbed feet and an oversized drinking straw mouth extension is ludicrous.  But once you get over the ludicrousness of the whole affair, it’s really pretty awesome.  We swam around, cheating evolution, for hours checking out coral and fish.  We also stumbled across a couple of giant sting rays, which Sheena and I followed around at what we considered to be a safe distance.

On the boat we befriended a couple of professional hair designers from Connecticut who were preparing to retire to Belize.  Raymond, an energetic fellow originally from Hong Kong, and his wife Michelene invited us back to their hotel to barbecue our red snappers.  However, before we could eat Raymond insisted on giving both Sheena and me haircuts.  He also taught me how to properly layer a woman’s hair, so I no longer have an excuse not to cut Sheena’s hair (we’ve been cutting each other’s hair for years, but recently she’s been asking for layering, which I’ve been able to dodge on the grounds of ignorance).

After haircuts and a delicious snapper barbecue, Raymond and Michelene were kind enough to offer us their room’s extra bed for the night.  In the morning they treated us to breakfast before heading back to the airport.  I guess the locals aren’t the only generous ones.  We followed their lead and moseyed our way inland, to the west, toward the Guatemalan border.

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Mar 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 19 Comments

Belize: Many Terrible Things Are Waiting. Right?

Before we got to Belize I didn’t really know much about it.  I knew that the official language was English and most tourists spent their time in the island system off the coast rather than inland in the jungle.  I knew that Mennonites had a strong presence here.  I knew that Floyd Landis was raised a Mennonite and ended up taking banned drugs to win the Tour de France. So basically the country had a strong presence of people linked to people who cheat to win the Tour de France.  My knowledge was clearly a bit thin.  I had heard that there were no fast food chain restaurants in Belize.  Well at least that’s redeeming.  We were also told that we’d be robbed blind the minute we stepped over the border or may even fall prey to some druggie. Things can change in a moment and the tables do not take much time to turn.

Oh, but before we talk about Belize I have good news to report.  While my research over the last couple of months has indicated that the Pacific Ocean is almost completely devoid of life, the Caribbean has proven to be a cornucopia of edible fish.  Meet my red snapper.

Of course I was only able to get to this one after catching a barracuda and a triggerfish.  Boo ya! (or whatever the hip kids say these days).  More on fishing in the next post.

Feels good to get that out in the open.  Life is good again.

We beat the odds by crossing over the border and not getting robbed blind.  Things were looking up.  By the evening we had arrived in the country’s capital, Belmopan.  We stopped at a Chinese-run hotel and asked if we could pay to camp in their parking lot.  They nearly robbed us blind, but then opted to let us camp there for free.  Camping in a hotel parking lot in a country’s capital might seem uncomfortable, until you realize that the population of Belize’s capital is only 16,000.  That’s exactly 80 times the population of Farmersville, Pennsylvania; the town where Floyd Landis was raised as a Mennonite before growing up to be a big fat cheater.

While camping in the parking lot of that Chinese hotel in Belmopan, we made friends with Durman, the parking lot security guard.  He told us that Prince Harry of England would be hosting a party in Belmopan the following evening, and everyone was invited.  Our minds wandered to what could come of this.  Belmopan’s population was small, so the party would probably be small.  We imagined ourselves laughing at really funny jokes with Mr. Prince, doing belly button shots, and making impersonations of Ace Ventura.  Later, in a moment of weakness he would scribble his cell phone number on a napkin and invite us to stay in Buckingham Palace when we get to London.

We slept on it, but in the morning decided to forego Prince Harry’s party and instead drive to Placencia to camp.  It sounded like more fun than belly button shots and Ace Ventura impersonations, albeit only a little bit.  We accepted the fact that we’d regret our decision in a couple of years when we find ourselves camping in a wet London back alley, creating little perimeter dams out of soggy saltine crackers to keep the hobo urine from soaking into our sleeping bags.

Accepting our fate, we drove on.  A couple of hours outside of Belmopan we came across a sign advertising “Blue Hole”.  We pulled over and walked into the jungle to find a nice little swimming hole created by a sinkhole that collapsed into an underground river.   Just downstream from the swimming hole the river ducked under a mountain and disappeared into darkness.  With a guide you can take an inner tube down the river into the dark subterranean cave, and presumably come out somewhere else.  We didn’t have a guide so I just stood in the cave entrance and watched leaves disappear into the darkness as I dropped them into the current.  It kind of felt like when I was a kid and used to send cow pie boats through the rapids in trout streams, except that if I slipped here I would be sucked under a mountain.

On our way to Placencia, a small town on the Caribbean coast, we passed through dozens of small villages.  Standing in stark contrast to the scary robbers that we expected to see based on everyone’s warnings were the smiling, happy faces of Belizeans.  Most don’t own cars, so they walk or ride bikes.  This gave us an opportunity to see hundreds of people on our drive across the country, and nearly everyone was smiling.  Furthermore, we didn’t pass a person on the roadside, be it a walker, cyclist, or someone sitting on the porch of their home, without them giving us a wave and a huge smile.

Oh, but the fast food chain restaurant thing?  Turns out it’s not true.  Subway opened a store in Belize City, but the government later required that they obtain their bread rolls from a local source.  If Subway would exist in Belize, it would serve its sandwiches on Belizean rolls.  They said “no way” and closed their doors.  Later, McDonalds tried to open a branch in Belize City.  They were given permission with one stipulation: they would have to source their beef from Belizean ranchers.  They also said “no way” and pulled the plug.  Later, Subway relented and reopened their doors.  Now if you want to eat at a fast food chain in Belize, you’ll have to find the only one in the country: a Subway serving its sandwiches on Belizean rolls.  I don’t know about you, but I find this story very refreshing.

What we thought we’d find in Belize based on hearsay: scary robbers.  What stands out in or mind after actually having visited Belize: all smiles.  To hell with naysayers.  The Mennonites even looked nice and nonthreatening in their horse drawn buggies with their suspenders.  So to hell with Floyd Landis too.

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Mar 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

Monthly Summary – February 2012

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

Countries driven: Mexico

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

Total bribes paid: 0  (Trip Total = 0)

Total Spent: $1,934 ($66.69/day)

Retrospective Thoughts On Mexico:

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

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

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

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

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

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Mar 2012

Blog, North America


Yucatan Training Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mar 2012

Blog, North America

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Happy Barfday To You!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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