Freeze Lawbreaker!

Keeping a level head: I consider it a strength of mine, with a few notable exceptions.  There was the time I flipped out on our neighbors in college for staging a boxing match against our front door in the middle of the night.  By the time I realized what was going on, I was standing in the chilly air in the middle of the fight in my underwear, screaming like a banshee.  And there was the time I unleashed my verbal wrath on Tom Danielson, now a top 10 Tour de France finisher, after he acted like a sally girl crybaby during one of our mountain bike races.  But in general, I’m an even-tempered guy.  And it was with this even temper that I envisioned myself dealing with police on this trip.  Just be cool, I tell myself when I practice in front of the mirror.

For nearly three months; through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador- some seven thousand miles in total- we had not been pulled over by the police.  As we bumped along the potholed highway in southern Honduras, our luck finally changed.  The police had set up cones in the roadways and were waving people over to the shoulder, seemingly at random. Somehow we’d made it to within a few miles of the Nicaraguan border without being stopped, and then sure enough: the point, followed by the wave.

“Damnit!  Just be cool, okay?”  I said, pulling Nacho onto the dirt shoulder.  Sheena nodded, wide-eyed.  “Okay, I’ll be cool!”  I wasn’t talking to her, but I kept this detail to myself.  We were expecting the full body cavity search, or worse.

No bribes. No bribes. Just be cool. It’s just a full body cavity search.  Be cool…

The officer slowly strode over to our window, chest puffed out.  He looked over my head before snapping his face downward, peering at me over his aviator sunglasses.  Classic.

“Where you coming from?  Where you going?”  He seemed like a man without emotions.  The worst kind of man.

“From El Salvador to Nicaragua”, I said in the coolest way I knew how.  He looked up the road, then down the road, and then over my shoulder at the interior of Nacho before looking at me again.  His movements were slow, as if he were conceiving an evil plan.

“So,” he said, “have you tried the white melons?”

“Uh, what?”

“The white melons.  Have you tried them?”  He lifted up his left hand, in which he was carrying a large white melon.  “They’re the richest melons in Honduras.”  He peered over his aviators, expectantly.

“Um, no sir”, I said, still being totally cool.  WTF?

He reached his hand through my window and handed me the melon.  “Try it.  These white melons are so rich.”  Then he stepped backwards, held up two fingers in front of his face, and flicked them to the side.  Move along.

Showed him.  Oh, and he was right.  The melon was rich.  Maybe even the richest in all of Honduras.

A couple of days passed without much in the way of police activity, although Nicaragua turned out to have the same type of police stops: cones in the road, officers pulling people over at their leisure.  One day we made the decision to scoot from the north end of the country to the south end so that we could find a secluded beach spot to wait out the weekend craziness of Semana Santa.  We were asking for trouble.

At the intersection of two main thoroughfares somewhere in the Nicaraguan countryside, a police officer waited.  I was nervous.  I looked both ways and then pulled out, making a perfectly executed left turn, if I do say so myself.  Seeing a livestock truck fast approaching from behind, I signaled and changed lanes.  Textbook.  At this, the police officer shook his head in pity and waved me over.  I had apparently done something very wrong.

“You made an illegal turn” he said, slightly invading my personal space bubble as he stood next to my window.  He was messing with me.  I felt my heart rate increase.  I had a flashback of Tom Danielson and I wanted to punch him in the face.  This was unsportsmanlike.

I pointed out my window at the road I’d just come from.  “I just turned from over there, into the left lane.  Then I signaled and changed lanes.  That’s not an illegal turn.”

He shook his head wildly, looking down, his eyes closed.  Clearly I knew nothing about driving.  “You made an ILLEGAL turn!  Big ticket.  BIG ticket!” he said, flailing his imaginary pen against an imaginary paper in his hand like he was going to write me a ticket.

“Not a big ticket”, I said, “No ticket.  I know the laws sir, and I know how to drive.  I didn’t break the law, so I don’t get a ticket.”  I was struggling to keep my composure.

He pointed his finger at the sky.  “Only God is perfect” he said, shaking his head at me like I was some kind of heathen.

“I’m not claiming to be perfect, but I am claiming to know the law.” I said.

He stood at my window in silence staring at me. I stared back at him.  Maybe he was waiting for the How can we make this go away schpiel, but obviously he was not privy to my personal promise not to pay bribes.  After a minute he took a small step back.

“Can we go?” I asked.  He said nothing.  I eased my foot onto the gas, watching for a reaction.  There wasn’t one, so I pulled away.

We made our way down the road in silence.  “I think he wanted a bribe”, I said.  “Yeah, I think you’re right”, Sheena responded.  I told her what he had said about God and she giggled.  He was really trying.

Our freedom only lasted about an hour before we were summoned to the roadside again.  This time we’d done nothing out of the ordinary, so we weren’t too concerned.  We were already acting really cool at the time, so we just kept doing it as Nacho came to a stop.

“Coming from?  Going to?” The officer asked.

“From Playa Poneloya to Playa Majagual” I said.

“All right.  May I see your license, registration, and insurance?”  At this my heart skipped a beat.  Car insurance isn’t required in most countries, and we usually buy it at the border where it is required.  If you had car insurance down here you’d spend years trying to collect on it in the event of an accident, so we don’t bother unless mandated.  We didn’t have it for Nicaragua, as we didn’t think it was required (hindsight note: it is).

I got out my license and registration and handed it to him.  “Here you go.”  I hadn’t formulated a plan yet, and hoped he’d forget about the insurance.

“Insurance.  Can I see your insurance?  You do maintain insurance, right?”  He said.  I needed more time to think.

“Que significa ‘seguro’?” I asked, pretending not to know what the word for “insurance” meant.  My mind raced.  I recalled that in Belize, the fine for driving without insurance was $3,000.

“If you get into an accident, insurance pays for the damage.  Do you have insurance?”

“Ohhhhh! Of course!” I said.  I slowly unlocked the security box under my seat where we keep our important paperwork.  I figured I’d rifle through some papers and then pretend I couldn’t find it.  At least it would give me time to think.

As I leafed through the folder, I saw it: my full coverage insurance, expiring in 2014.  I had completely forgotten about it!  The only trouble: it wasn’t real.  I’d felt foolish and a little dirty while creating it in Photoshop several months before our trip.  The idea had come from the Bumfuzzle blog during their around the world sailing trip.  From their website:


We, like at least half the cruisers out here, consider ourselves to be self-insured. However, a promise that we’ll pay for any damage that we do doesn’t seem to cut it here. Fortunately we foresaw that this was going to be a problem and we created our very own self-insurance company. We pay a deductible of $0 per month to ourselves in exchange for coverage equal to the amount of our bank balance. We even issued ourselves some insurance paperwork that looks pretty official and passed some very close scrutinizing by the Greek authorities.


Should I use it? I wondered.  Before my more sensible side had a chance to pipe up, I was handing our fake insurance to the officer.  Confidently, of course, and in a totally cool way.  He seemed confused and stared at the paper for a long time.  My heart pumped and I felt like the veins in my neck would explode.  You’re going to jail, punk! I thought to myself.  This is serious. Don’t drop the soap!

Sheena’s eyes were burning a hole in the side of my head, I could feel it.  Before either of us lost consciousness though, the officer handed my paperwork back.

“Have a nice day”, he said, and we were off.  I had a little explaining to do, as Sheena was not aware of my criminal preparations prior to this.  “You’re welcome.” was my only defense.  She pretended that I was a complete moron, but I could see a smile through her condescending frown.

The final shakedown, the big test, came with our next and final traffic stop, not thirty minutes later.  It was getting old, and I was getting cocky.  The officer pointed to us, then pointed to the side of the road.

“License, registration, insurance please.”

“Here you go”, I said, handing him our mix of legitimate and illegitimate paperwork.  He matched my license up to the registration and looked satisfied.  He took one look at our insurance and held it up for me to see.  He paused.  I nearly crapped my pants, but then caught myself.

“This isn’t valid in Nicaragua.”

I knew he was right, but I had to keep the ball rolling.  My mind flashed back to the USAA insurance I used to have back home.

“Actually this insurance is good in Nicaragua.  It’s the official insurance company of the US Military.  It’s good everywhere in the world.  You know, if you’re in the military you never know where you’ll end up.”  It was a Hail Mary.  I had dragged the US Military into my lie.  If there is a hell, I would certainly end up there.

He called another officer over.  “Hey, does this insurance work here?  This guy says it does.”

“Nope, it’s no good.”  The other officer said.  Just then, a car came racing through the checkpoint and  the second officer ran to stop it.  Our officer seemed unsure what to do, and tried to get the attention of his colleague.  After a few attempts he gave up.  He handed me the papers and looked at me.

“Am I free to go?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders.  I drove away.

“Gracias!” Sheena squealed from the passenger seat.  Way to play it cool, Sheena.  Way to play it cool.

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Apr 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 10 Comments

The Antigua Creeper

“Who’s that old creeper hanging out with all of those high school girls?”  Those who passed the open window of the chocolate making school in Antigua were all certainly wondering the same thing.  Sure, Sheena and the girls’ chaperone were both my age, but they blended into the sea of adolescent femininity like snakes in grass, leaving me the odd man out.  The 28 year old creeper.

The class was riveting, and our high school classmates were a vivacious bunch.  They hailed from Georgia, I believe, and were in Guatemala for some kind of weeklong church trip to a Mayan village.  With the help of our instructor, Pablo, we roasted cocoa beans and turned them into all sorts of goodness.  After having shelled, and pulverized the beans in a mortar, we made Mayan hot chocolate.  As I sipped on my tiny ramekin of hot cocoa I spied something that nearly caused the spicy concoction to squirt out of my nose: one of the high school girls tilted her head in such a way that she looked almost exactly like our friend Shawn Kramer.  It was uncanny! Who’s that old creeper staring at that high school girl?  Creeee-pyyyyyy!

We arrived in Antigua, in the southwestern corner of Guatemala, after having crawled across the country over the course of two weeks at a mere 15 miles per hour, give or take, due to heinous roads.  At long last, we had reached the final major outpost before the Salvadorian border.  While Antigua was a well cared for colonial town, we had unexpectedly found the country to be, by and large, economically ravaged.  I suppose it’s only natural given their turbulent recent history.

In 1954, the CIA sponsored a military coup to overthrow the government of Guatemala.  It’s well documented, not conspiracy theory.  The goal was to create an authoritarian government in place of Guatemala’s functioning democracy for the sole purpose of protecting US corporate interests (primarily a banana company that supplied fruit to the USA). Between 1954 and 1990, about 300,000 civilians were murdered and the country’s economic development  remained at a standstill.  And that’s what I mean by turbulent recent history.

When we arrived in Antigua we made our way to the office of the tourist police, the Asistur, where we had heard we could camp for free.  Lo and behold, just outside of downtown we found a walled compound filled with abandoned cars, bombed out buildings, and a small office containing the tourist police.  It had a nice view to the southwest of a live volcano, only a couple of miles away, which erupted every day.  We drove in and found a place between the Australian couple we’d met in Tikal, and the French family we’d camped next to in Lago de Atitlan.

Running into the same group of overlanders has become a regular and welcome occurrence.  At any one time there are a number of groups making the trip down the Pan-American Highway on similar schedules.  The result is that every week or so we come across someone we know.  There’s Thomas, the Swedish guy we met Palenque, Mexico, who takes public transit, and whose good looks have made him irresistible to even the most macho of male Guatemalan hotel employees.  There’s the French family driving in an RV and homeschooling their two children along the way.  The Austrlians Chris and Wendy, as well as the Americans James and Lauren from Home on the Highway are both driving Toyota 4Runners and making us jealous with the speed at which they can drive over topes.  Toughest of all are Barbara and Achim, the German couple, riding their bikes from America to Argentina.  They’re on flat pedals with hiking shoes, always seem to be in a good mood, and are keeping pace with us in our van.

As we settled into our place at Asistur, chewing the fat with the French and the Aussies, who should come strolling into our camp but Barbara and Achim.  Wendy and Chris, having planned to leave that day, decided to stick around for another day just for the hell of it.  We had catching up to do.  We would spend the next four days hanging out with Barbara and Achim.  Friends, just like back home, except that we’re all homeless and unemployed.

It just so happened that we arrived in Antigua just in time for the pre-Semana Santa religious processions.  In this display, families stake their claim on a patch of the procession route; a daylong circuit winding through the streets of Antigua.  The families spend immense amounts of time creating beautiful “carpets” In the street.  The carpets are actually artistic scenes made of colored sawdust, flowers, vegetables, and other objects, and are created by the devotees on the day of the parade.  They’re an obsessive-compulsive person’s dream: sawdust grains ordered in such a way, and on such a grand scale, that it blows the very minds of any and every observer.

As the procession passes through the streets, the carpets are destroyed by the trampling of men and women wearing pointed caps, brandishing instruments, and carrying heavy wooden floats adorned with fake Jesus puppets spewing pump-driven fake blood.  One million people packed into Antigua’s streets like sardines to watch the carnage.  It was like a religious Disneyland!

Sitting at the German microbrewery in Antigua with our Bavarian friends, we reflected on Guatemala.  It was tough.  I do realize that we plan to drive our van through China, India, and the Middle-East, and that those will undoubtedly be tougher.  But we’re just getting started, and Guatemala was tough for us.  We’re still in the shake down period, figuring out what works and what doesn’t.  This country was a test.  We ordered new car parts and had them sent to Costa Rica.  We compiled lists of lessons learned.  We hit many lows and not very many highs.  But we made it through.  And after all of that, we took our pent up frustration out on a bunch of cocoa beans, yielding a mediocre ramekin of sugary chocolate milk, and the everlasting impression burned upon the minds of those who passed by us, of the Antigua Creeper and his cohort of Georgian high school girls.

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Apr 2012

Blog, Recipes

DISCUSSION 10 Comments

Nacho’s Kitchen: Stuffing Face in Belize

Sheena here!  Well, while I originally intended on blogging right from the get go of our trip, time seriously does fly when you are having fun. For any of you who have been near me for extended periods of time know that the most likely thing I’d choose to blog about would be food. I love cooking, baking, experimenting with new flavors, and finding healthy, wholesome ingredients.

To say the least, food preparation has become quite the challenge on the road. How I miss the oven and a fridge large enough to pack five children inside.  Not that I would ever do that. Luckily, something I find equal enjoyment in is tasting the local foods while traveling. Brad and I are up for trying just about anything anywhere; road side stands, comedors, markets, they are all game. Given my slight stomach issues, some of you may be thinking I should be a little more selective. Good news though, my weak tummy has been doing crunches lately and building strength for the next round of countries we are approaching.

With every new country, we have become familiarized with a new set of flavors and sensations. I often forget how different the food truly is from home. Not so much the basic ingredients per se, but the arrangement of them into meal time staples. I’ve become quite accustomed to the deliciousness of the mashed plantain, the dirt cheap bowls of fruit topped with yogurt, your choice of cereal toppings and honey, freshly squeezed lemonade, non-refrigerated boxed milk, eggs sold in bags, water sold in bags, mangoes topped with chili powder, tortillerias on every street corner, taco stands.

The same goes for the general way of life in Central America. It is no longer a surprise to see mangoes littering yards like garbage, truck drivers taking a midday siesta under their vehicle; hammock strewn up to the underside of the vehicle frame. It is no longer strange to see livestock walking down a busy city street, 25+ people in the back of a pickup truck, red tuk tuks, baskets being balanced on top of heads, and people taking baths in the river and drying their washed clothes on river rocks and barbed wire fences. It’s rare not to see a hammock outside of every home, often inside as well. A few weeks ago we rented a room in a well off family’s home, and interestingly enough, a hammock was strung up between two beams instead of a couch.  Many sites have become common place from day to day, and we often forget how spectacular they are.

Anyway, I’d like to share those experiences with you, and better late then never (I think), I’m going to back up and start with Belize.

Our first food stop in Belize was at a road side stand worked by cousins – two chocolate skinned younger girls, shy in demeanor, but unable to conceal their bright smiles. We sat down under a strung up blue tarp and filled up on rice and beans, barbecued chicken, and coleslaw. Every lunch from here on out was a similar concoction of fare: paper plate in hand and food doused in Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce and pickled hot peppers and onions. There were of course varieties; potato salad instead of coleslaw, pork instead of chicken, but every meal included a tall bottle of Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce. She was one smart entrepreneur as I’ve never seen a product in so many back alley restaurants and mom-and-pop grocery stores. I can only compare its popularity to a bottle of Heinz ketchup on the table in all American burger joints. Marie Sharp also made some fabulous chutneys and jams, my favorite being the mango and guava jam.

Breakfast was a delicious encounter. After talking with Taiowa, a native of Belize, he insisted we must try the fry jacks for breakfast. A fried dough that puffs up and is eaten with other morning staples: beans, eggs, meat, and fruit. Given that they are fried into a hollow plumpness, they are of course perfect for stuffing with other treats. From experience, I can tell you fry jacks do not disappoint. They reminded us of Indian fry bread from the Native Americans in Arizona. And while I didn’t see the Belizeans eating their fry jacks with honey or jam, I know this would be an undeniably perfect replacement to stuffing them with protein. Besides the fry jacks, there are also Johnny cakes, a fluffy local biscuit, sometimes made with coconut.

With every heaping mass of rice and beans consumed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there are equal portions of seafood devoured. No surprise here as the country’s coast bumps up against turquoise waters laced with coral and schools of fish. A taste of lobster is a must here, however if you come during the non-harvesting season, those critters are illegal to cook up and dip in butter. Due to past overharvesting, they are left to play and make more lobster babies. So it goes, no lobster for us, however we did get our fair share of snapper, shrimp, and conch fritters (deep-fried balls of battered conch meat).

As for something really authentic, we got a taste of few Garifuna dishes which made their appearance in Belize 300 years earlier. Hudut, Bundiga, and Cassava bread were all brought over when escaped and shipwrecked slaves settled along the coast of the region. They mixed with the native Caribs, forming the Garifunas. Hopkins was one of their primary settlements, and where we tried them all. Hudut is a coconut broth fish stew, accompanied by mashed plantains and cassava bread (hard flat biscuit made from the cassava root).  Bundiga is made of clumped grated banana cooked in a coconut milk and served with snapper. Both were unique, with the bundiga being the most original and the hudut being something we would consider cooking in the future.

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Apr 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 22 Comments

Guatemala at 15 Miles Per Hour

When we left on this trip, I knew next to nothing about Guatemala.  I take that back.  When we left on this trip I knew absolutely nothing about Guatemala.  It should thus come as no surprise that we found ourselves in this predicament.

You may recall that our original plan was to drive from Tikal to Semuc Champey in one day.  We ended up camping out in the schoolyard of a Mayan village in the middle of nowhere after the main highway on our map turned out to be a really rough, really long dirt road.  We spent the evening surrounded by dozens of Mayan children staring at us while we sat in Nacho, staring back.

The next day, you will recall, we barely managed to get off of the terrible dirt road before our wheel bearing failed, leaving us stuck in a podunk town for five days.  A demoralizing affair, you will recall.

By the time Nacho was ready to go, we had talked ourselves out of going to Semuc Champey, as we were told that the road to get there was 3-4 hours of hellish, rocky, Nacho-killing steep dirt roads.  It sounded like a surefire way to destroy more wheel bearings, so we opted to scoot on a mere 155 miles to the mountain town of Nebaj.  Only three and a half hours away, Google Maps said.

What we didn’t expect was to drive from Fray Bartolome to Coban, a distance of 80 miles, in first and second gear.  But mostly first gear.  The road was never flat; it oscillated between straight up and straight down.  While climbing, Nacho insisted on being in first gear.  While descending, Nacho’s brakes insisted in being in first gear too.  After our early morning departure, we arrived in Coban, the halfway point, in time for a late lunch.  We would have been faster, of course, had we not taken the time to stop for breakfast next to a river, and to give a firewood-carrying old man a ride. We’re supposed to be enjoying ourselves, right? And doing charitable things for the elderly?

At Coban, the capital of the department of Alta Verapaz, we were sure our luck would change.  We were turning onto a new highway, the CA14, followed shortly by Highway 7W.  They were big thick red lines on our map, ensuring fast-moving smooth travels.  Minutes later we realized that we were wrong again.  We reminded ourselves how little we knew about Guatemala.  Mountains?  All of it?

When we hit the 7W it didn’t take long to turn to dirt.  We had traveled 95 miles by this point and had not managed to move beyond 2nd gear.  When the road turned to dirt we slowly crawled over a few off-camber deep ruts studded by sharp rocks before we stopped and looked at each other.

“Are you kidding me?  Is there some other way we can go?” I asked.

It didn’t look promising.  The next place of interest for us was Lago de Atitlan, which would put us nearly out of the country after a really long detour.  We couldn’t keep skipping sites because of the roads.  We reluctantly drove on.

After a couple of hours of slow, first gear crawling, we came to a split in the road.  Straight ahead the path was full of tall weeds and it seemed to head straight for a cliff.  To the left the road pitched straight down at what seemed to be a 35 degree slope, at least.  If we drove down, there was no way we’d get back up.  The road clung to the side of a steep vein of rock jutting off of the mountain before plunging off the end and around a corner at an even steeper pitch.  A man had parked his bicycle and was urinating in the middle of the weed-patch road.  We felt uneasy.  I tapped the gas and sent Nacho sliding down the loose, dusty incline straight down the side of the mountain.

By the time we reached the second or third corner, maybe three hundred yards down the road, I pulled onto the embankment to let the brakes cool down.  If I didn’t keep it at a walking pace, then our tires would slip under braking.  As we sat on the roadside the urinating bicycle man slowly rode past us, his rear wheel locked, skidding.  Sheena got out and walked the next corner.  Safety first.

We alternated between driving and letting the brakes cool for what seemed like an eternity.  The road kept switching back, diving lower and lower down the side of the mountain.  Suddenly, as we came around another vein of rock jutting out of the mountain, our jaws dropped.  The entire face of the mountain in front of us had peeled off and slid down into the valley below.  All that was left was an enormous scar where a mountain used to be.  The road wound its way right through the middle of the landslide, weaving through rocks the size of buildings, clinging precariously to the side of the rubble-strewn slide path.  Where the road had split, before the steep downhill, we had turned onto a makeshift road where the old road had apparently been wiped off the side of the mountain.

We slowly creeped along through the rubble, crossing a stream that continued to erode away the mountainside.  As soon as we made it across the landslide, the road pitched straight up.  We would have to climb all the way back up to where we started, but on the other side of the slide.

Due to the steepness of the road, there were times that we would bog down in first gear and it didn’t seem like we’d make it.  Nacho is big boned and doesn’t like hefting his 5,800 pound body up really steep stuff.  In these cases, just as it seemed we’d stall, I would push in the clutch, rev the engine, and release.  It’s a great way to destroy a clutch, but given the alternative, it seemed right.  It was that or face the wrath of a raging wife.  What do you mean we’re STUCK? And in DANGER?!  In the end, we made it to the top, albeit just barely.

A couple of hours later, as we continued to slog through landslide after landslide (although much smaller than the first), Sheena read the following in our Lonely Planet:


Renowned for its incredible views, highway 7W was until recently the most direct route from Huehuetenango to Coban.  But in late 2008, disaster struck when a mountain collapsed atop the road, leaving its east end in shambles.

There’s been no official attempt at rebuilding, but locals have carved out a hastily constructed detour that’s generally considered unsafe.  Buses from Uspantan to Coban regularly plow through the debris anyway, despite the dangers.  By all accounts, it’s a hair-raising journey and things worsen when it rains and drivers refuse to risk the gap, making passengers hike through the mud for 2km to continue the journey.

The saner alternative is backtracking via Guatemala City, a loss of about 4 hours, but an infinite gain in peace of mind.

Well crap.

After a couple more hours we finally reached pavement again.  For the first time, after eight hours of driving, I put Nacho in third gear.  A few seconds later we came across another landslide covering the pavement, so we put it back in first and felt our way through it.  First, second, third, landslide, repeat.

As we approached the high mountain town of Nebaj, night had closed in on us.  We wound our way up into the mountains in first gear, 15 miles per hour, ever higher into the night sky.  As we traversed one switchback after another, we looked out the window at the twinkling lights overhead.  In the deep black of the night we couldn’t tell if we were looking at stars, or at the lights from homes clinging to the mountainsides above us.

By nine o’clock we pulled into the small Mayan town of Nebaj; headquarters of the rebel army during the country’s recent civil war, chosen for its natural defenses against enemy attack.  The trip of 155 miles took us 11 hours.  An average speed of 14mph.  Screw you, Google Maps.

In Nebaj we admired the traditional dress of the local Mayans, shopped in the local market, and hiked through a mountain pass to the even smaller and more remote town of Acul.  In the mountains we took pity on the hordes of children emerging from the dense forest with loads of firewood on their backs.  We awoke each morning to the smell of pine burning in wood stoves and admired the blue skies and vast mountainscapes.

On the morning of our third day we pointed Nacho skyward, climbing the mountain rim surrounding Nebaj.  Once at the rim we pointed Nacho downward, into the switchbacks.  From Nebaj to Lago de Atitlan we continued our slow progress across Guatemala, in first and second gear, at somewhere around 15 miles per hour.

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Apr 2012

Blog, Central America

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Monthly Summary – March 2012

Now that we’re figuring things out and falling into more of a rhythm, the months seem to flash by.  This disappearing time trick also ensures that I remain in a perpetual state of catching up on blog updates.  Our friends back in Flagstaff are probably putting down first tracks on the mountain bike trails by now.  Rocky Ridge is usually the first to be clear of snow, and the rest of them slowly follow suit.  Sedona will also be warming up nicely by now as well.  Our old neighbors at the Dollhouse will soon lose their first garden planting to an unexpected frost (sorry guys).  Meanwhile, we’ve made it as far as Nicaragua and it’s been fairly hot all winter.  We’ve had three bouts of rain in the three months we’ve been gone, but really the only shifts in weather so far have been “hot and dry” or “hot and humid”.  It’s usually the latter.

Our spending this month was a bit higher than usual.  Much of this was due to Nacho maintenance, some was due to high camping fees and scant wild camping options, and some was due to getting conned into overpaying for things in Guatemala.  In the end, it’s all part of the game and we’ve expected our costs to fluctuate wildly month by month after having seen other monthly cost sheets, such as that of our friends at Bumfuzzle.  We’ve just grown so accustomed to staying vastly under budget that this month came as a surprise.

Countries driven: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador

Miles driven: 1,871 (Trip Total = 6,606; odometer reads 283,106)

Total bribes paid: 0  (Trip Total = 0…Eventually we’ll remove this section because we don’t ever plan to pay a bribe. But it’s a good reminder for now.)

Total Spent: $2,534 ($81.75/day)

Notes on our spending:

Gas – Although we’ve been driving less in general than we did in Mexico, gas prices are higher in Central America.  Belize was the most expensive at $6/gallon, while all of the other countries seem to hover right around $5.50/gallon.  Nacho gets around 18.5mpg, so we’re not in bad shape.  We still aren’t driving too much more than the average American does.

 VW Expenses – Driving a 28 year old van comes with the promise of mechanical mishaps.  Especially since it’s a VW Vanagon!  The engine and transmission each have less than 100k miles on them, but much of the rest of the van is original.  Nearly a third of a million miles takes its toll.  Our wheel bearings went out again in Guatemala, which set us back a little over $100 and five days.  We tried to replace the hubs at the same time, but there weren’t any to be found in Guatemala.  Also, we’ve discovered that our brakes overheat easily under our 5,800lb load, so we ordered some upgrades.  We settled on a set of slotted rotors and a couple of sets of high temperature ceramic brake pads.  We found them at Zeckhausen Racing in New Jersey for much less than our usual parts supplier, and he even shipped them for free to California as a way to help us on our trip.  What an awesome company!  From California the parts were loaded into a friend’s parents’ luggage and brought to Costa Rica, where they await our arrival.

 Camping/Hotels – Camping, like everything else in Belize, was bloody expensive.  We paid between $13 and $23 per night to camp there.  In Guatemala we spent around $12/night to camp, and $11/night for hotels while Nacho was getting fixed (go figure).  In El Salvador the prices finally fell back down to earth and we paid $3-$6/night.  We realize that paying to camp is something that should be easily avoided, but in Central America it’s surprisingly hard for us to find places to wild camp.  It’s pretty densely populated here, so the concept of heading down a dirt road for a while into the bush is tough.  If I were alone, I’d probably do more of that, but Sheena’s not as keen on the idea of camping in places where we might be seen by other people.  Our cheapest nights are usually the ones when we ask a hotel or restaurant if we can camp on their property.  When we camp, it’s oftentimes at a designated campground, but it’s just as likely to be at a hostel that has camping.

 Food – Food is one area where our spending has increased fairly substantially.  In Mexico, we were in heaven.  Street vendors and holes-in-the-wall sold all sorts of delicious food at dirty cheap prices.  I’m talking about food that would beat your town’s best gourmet Mexican restaurant, hands down, every time.  Not only that, but the ingredients are usually fresh and local, not genetically modified, industrially grown, and delivered out of season in a Sysco truck.  All that, and dinner could be had in Mexico for $1-$2.

As we ventured beyond Mexico’s southern border, the good food pretty much dried up.  Each country has had its specialties, and the occasional delicious surprise, but we’re having to try much harder to eat well now.  Sure, in Guatemala you can get fried chicken with rice and beans for $2.  In El Salvador you can get a dinner of pupusas (a corn meal patty containing beans, cheese, and pork skin) for $1.  In Nicaragua (beyond the scope of this update, I know) we ate quesillas, which is a corn tortilla containing a huge chunk of cheese covered in chopped onions and cream, for about $1.  All of these options are tasty, but none are all that good for you, and they’re all pretty bland.  In order to eat well, we’re spending a lot of money on tortillas, fruits and vegetables at the local markets, and the occasional fish.  We’re still eating well, but it’s getting more expensive.  Over the last 3 months, our food spending has been $518, $658, and $928, respectively.  Yes, we’ve almost doubled our food spending in Central America compared to Mexico.

 Borders/Visas/Permits  – To get out of Mexico and into Belize, we paid $68.  To get out of Belize and into Guatemala, we spent $63.  Everything other border crossing, according to our notes, was free.  Every time we approach a border, someone attaches themselves to us so that they can “help” us get through the steps.   They also make it seem like they’re officials who are supposed to help you, and they won’t leave you alone, no matter how many times you say “no thanks”.  In the end they expect a $5 tip, but usually the process is easily enough done on our own.  When these people approach us, we tell them that they’re welcome to help us, but we won’t be parting with any money.  This gets rid of them every time.

 Other – This category also rose considerably this month.  It’s a conglomeration of little bits of hardware, fees for tours and park entry, ant traps (thanks Bacalar…), car insurance in Belize, internet cards, laundry, a chocolate making class in Antigua, and a trip to the doctor.

Before we arrived in Antigua, I noticed an inflamed mole on my back, so decided to get it checked out by a dermotologist.  I walked into his office without an appointment and told the receptionist my problem.  I waited for 10 minutes and then went into the doctor’s office.  He gave me a consultation, in English, and explained all of the possibilities.  He then did a biopsy and sent it away for lab work.  I was eating ice cream next door less than an hour after I walked into his office.  The price, including the consultation, biopsy, and all of the lab work to test for cancer, set us back $75.  When people ask why we’d dare to travel without health insurance, this is why.  The idea of falling into financial ruin over health care is almost uniquely American.  Sheena’s dentist visit in Mazatlan was free, and now this.  And by the way, I don’t have cancer after all!

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