May 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 23 Comments

Missing Persons Case

By 10:00 on Friday morning, I had given Sheena up for missing.  I had never lost my wife in a foreign land before, so I wasn’t quite sure what to do.  Do I call the hospital?  Issue an Amber alert?  Do I press the S.O.S. button on our crappy SPOT Tracker?  The last option was a sure fail, as the tracker stopped working three weeks into our trip and hasn’t started working again, even after receiving a new unit from the company.  How the hell did this even happen anyway?

We had arrived in Atenas, Costa Rica a week earlier, and were given the keys to our friends’ vacation home.  The house sits high on a mountainside outside of town, up an impossibly steep dirt road, in the middle of a small coffee plantation.  We had arrived after four months of solid overland travel and were frankly ready for a recharge.  A vacation from the vacation, if you will.  For the first several days of our stay we lazily slept in, lounged about in our pajamas, went for swims in the pool, prepared extravagant barbecued meals, and ate breakfast high on our second story breakfast nook overlooking the San Jose valley and its surrounding volcanoes.  In short, we acted in the same way that rich actors must behave during long periods of no work.  I came to see myself as a young Clint Eastwood.  I started wearing my sunglasses indoors at night, just like rich and famous people do.

By the time the first week of our stay came to an end we were ready to change out of our pajamas and host our first guests, our fellow Pan-American traveling friends James and Lauren from Home on the Highway.

James and Lauren just happened to be passing through Atenas, and would be picking up Lauren’s mom and sister from the San Jose airport the following morning.  A worry-prone mother, fearful for her vagabonding daughter’s wellbeing had joined the picture, so the stage was set for some catastrophe to happen.  The only thing missing was a catalyst; some terrible idea that would set Murphy’s Law in motion.

“Let’s go for a hike!”, Sheena exclaimed to Lauren.

“Oooh yeah, we can go early so I can be back in time to pick up my mom from the airport!”, Lauren said.

The shit had been thrown.  All we could do was sit back and helplessly wait for it to hit the fan.

Lauren’s mom would be in at 11:15 AM, so they decided to leave on their hike at 7:00.  Two independent sets of neighbors had vouched that the loop would take an hour and a half, and that there was no possibility of getting lost.

“There’s no way they could have gotten lost!” Darlyce said in self defense, after the girls had become hopelessly lost.

Initially James and I were comfortable with the idea of a morning lady hike.  This would give us a chance to sit around and do manly stuff without female distraction.  Crimp wires with greasy wire crimpers, organize heavy things, open bags of tortilla chips without any notable struggle, sit backwards in chairs.  Bro time.

The first inkling that something might have gone terribly wrong came when the ladies failed to materialize by 8:16.  Sheena and Lauren are both fitness aficionadas.  They do things like running and P90X workout videos.  But they don’t do the workout videos in air conditioned living rooms like those sissy ladies back home, they do them in the jungle after they spent the night sleeping in their car.  They’re tougher than nails and they don’t do hour-and-a-half hikes in an hour and a half.  They do them in an hour and fifteen minutes.  By 8:16 they were assumed to be missing in action.

James and I took silent note of this fact, but continued opening bags of chips and organizing heavy things as though nothing were amiss.  Only namby pambies sit around worrying about where their wives are.

9:30 came and went, and it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong.  Could have been anything; kidnapping, hit and run, drive by shooting, starvation.

“Come on ladies”, James said nonchalantly as he loaded their things into their 4Runner.  The clock was ticking, and their predetermined airport departure time was only 30 minutes away.  I tried to busy myself by rearranging liquor bottles and eating really spicy salsa without wincing.  Every once in a while I would walk outside and stand on the property wall overlooking the road.  Not because I was worried or anything, but because standing atop a high rock wall made manliness exude from my every pore.  This was Bro Time, after all.

“If they don’t show up by 10:00, we’re going for a drive”, James said.  This was good.  We would spring into action and swoop in to save our ladies from whatever ailed them.  We would drive this hour and a half loop and see why the heck they’d been gone for over three hours.

In the 4Runner we silently drove the circuit in reverse, climbing steep mountain roads in four wheel drive, keeping a keen eye out for distressed women sulking about.

“So…what should I tell Lauren’s mom if I we don’t find them and I have to go to the airport myself?”, James asked.

“Just tell her…uh…” but nothing came to me.  I can usually B.S. my way through just about anything, but this time I came up empty handed.  We continued bouncing along in tense silence.  By 10:30 we’d seen no sign of our fitness queens, so James dropped me back at the house and high tailed it to the airport.  He would have to tell Lauren’s mom that her daughter was a missing person.  Like that Locked Up Abroad show on TV, only worse because we didn’t even know if they were locked up at all.  Only one thing was certain: they were abroad.

After thinking about what I should do – Amber Alert, S.O.S. button, et cetera – I decided to drop by the neighbor’s house.  Darlyce could surely shed some light on the seemingly hopeless situation.

“There’s no way they could have gotten lost!” She said. She hadn’t shed the light on the situation that I had imagined she might have.  We went inside and her husband Alex made some calls to see if anyone knew where they might have ended up.  In the end, we hatched a plan whereby I would scour the mountains with our gardener as a passenger in his gardening truck.  In time, I was told, we might find them.  Somehow.

The picture Sheena took at the height of being lost

By now I was coming to terms with the real possibility of my untimely death by strangulation that would ensue upon my telling Sheena’s father that his daughter, too, was a missing person.

As Diego the gardener and I walked to his truck, we noticed a small red car in front of our house.  We watched as Sheena and Lauren emerged from the back seat.  No blindfolds, only the grimace of shame that can only be the result of a near international missing persons fiasco.  The little red car swung out of the driveway and into the road.  It was a taxi.  Our fitness queens came home in a taxi.

The fitness queens in the taxi

“Oopsies!” Sheena said, totally downplaying the seriousness of the situation.  “We got SO lost!”

“Yeah, SO lost!”, Lauren added.  “We took a wrong turn, but we were talking so we didn’t realize it for a VERY long time.”

“Yeah, and then we turned around and started going back, but then we didn’t know where we were, and then we took another wrong turn” Sheena said.  “After a while we knew we’d be late, so we started running downhill as fast as we could. And it was SOOO steep!  But after like 10 minutes we realized that we were running the wrong way.”

“Yeah, we started running through a bunch of leaves, and we didn’t remember any leaves, so we knew we were VERY lost”, Lauren said.  Things were worse than I had imagined.

“Finally we decided to ask for help, so we looked for a house with a car.  We thought maybe they would bring us home.  But when we told them we needed a ride home, we couldn’t remember where we lived.  We didn’t even know the name of the town!”  Sheena seemed to think that this was all very funny.

“So a taxi came and got us and we told him we lived in ‘San something’, so he started driving us around.  Finally Sheena started to recognize stuff and she was like, ‘oh, oh, I REMEMBER this!’  And that’s how we got back here!”

Back at home, you could cut the shame with a knife

James called me from a payphone as the plane was touching down and I was able to tell him the good news.  When Lauren’s mom and sister met him they asked where Lauren was.  “She’s not here, but she’s okay” was his response.  The perfect words to keep a mother from worrying.  Disaster averted.

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May 2012
DISCUSSION 10 Comments

First Look – New Ferry from Panama to Colombia

If you’re driving from Central America to South America, I expect that you already know that you can’t drive the whole way. Standing between the continents, Panama and Colombia are separated by a swath of jungle called the Darien Gap. There are no roads, and it is inadvisable to try to cross on foot due to the danger imposed by the jungle and the near certainty of being captured by the FARC or other paramilitaries.

Until now, the only way to cross the gap with a vehicle has been to load the vehicle in a shipping container and send it by container ship. The driver and passengers were then responsible for getting themselves to Colombia by plane or boat. The process is daunting, very time consuming (weeks), and has unfathomable amounts of red tape. Now there is a new option.

read more…

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May 2012
DISCUSSION 23 Comments

The Guac-Off

Several years ago my dad opened a Mexican restaurant.  The main goal for any enterprise is to make money, and so it might seem strange that there was one item on our menu on which we consciously lost money.  Every time someone ordered guacamole, we lost $1.00.  Why?  Because our guacamole was like crack and it drove business through the doors, but it would have been too expensive if we actually charged people what it cost to make it.  We bought fresh ingredients  from the farmer’s market in Flagstaff and made it by hand.  It was with this proud guacamole heritage that Sheena and I prepared for the impromptu Guac-Off at Sole and Diego’s house in Playa Coco, Costa Rica.

As with most of the positive aspects of our life these days, we fell into this situation by way of not having a plan.  We had arrived on the Nicoya Peninsula that morning, and decided to head to Playa Tamarindo.  It wasn’t because of anything specific we’d heard about Tamarindo, it was merely the only place on the peninsula we’d ever heard of.

As we approached Tamarindo, we passed a break in the trees where we could see a beach.  People basked in the sun on the white sand and surfers were lined up in the water.  It had all of the ingredients of a good day, so we rolled Nacho to the roadside and pulled out the surfboards.

It might be of interest to know that neither Sheena nor I really knows how to surf.  We’ve been attempting, with varying degrees of success, to catch waves ever since we put down tracks in Baja California.  Nevertheless, I sat out there on the longboard while Sheena paddled around on the stand-up paddleboard (SUP), and we took turns getting pulverized by waves.  In between watery punishments, we noticed a guy and a girl successfully surfing on their SUPs.  After we’d had enough, Sheena decided to ask them for advice.

It turned out that the SUPing couple were Diego and Sole (pronounced ‘so-lay’), owners of a paddleboard tour company in Playa Coco, about 45 minutes up the peninsula.  With them were a couple of American friends who had recently moved to town.

“We’re having a guac-off tonight”, they said.  “You guys should come.  You can sleep in our guest room.”

And with that we abandoned the idea of Tamarindo and headed back the way we’d come.  There are rules to this game, and rule number 6 says if you get invited to a guacamole making party, you drop whatever you’re doing and go.  Especially when you have guacamole heritage in the family.  The thought of a real bed was also appealing.

And so it was that 45 minutes later we were stepping through the doors of Sole and Diego’s extra nice, super comfortable condo in Playa Coco. It was the first time in three months that we’d set foot inside of a modern home; uniform walls, granite countertops, plush couches, decorations, curtains, and nice beds, not to mention a nice patio overlooking the town.

We weren’t there long before we were whisked out the door by the Americans Heather and Jeff, and their Costa Rican friend Sandy.  There was to be a guac-off, so we had to loosen up.  We drove Diego’s truck through the mountains and down a 4×4 track to a hidden beach in a cove.  Diego had told us that a red tide had come a few days before, but that it should have been gone by now.

I brought along my speargun and snorkeling gear, as I was told that this cove had crystal clear water, and was basically an underwater seafood buffet.  In the Pacific Ocean of all places, where my research has shown a distinct lack of fish.  Jackpot.  As I entered the water, however, something didn’t seem right.  Funky smell.  The water was rather opaque.  “It’ll get better”, I thought.  I spent a few minutes fumbling with my flippers and snorkel, then loaded my speargun and put my face into the water.  I’m color-retarded, so it took me this long to realize that the water was dark red.  I swam away from the shore, thinking that perhaps deeper water would mean more currents and clarity.

After a few minutes I had a boogie man moment.  I decided to see how bad the visibility really was, so I placed my hand in front of my face.  I couldn’t see it.  Being that I was born and raised in a forest, and had spent considerable time in deserts (all far from the ocean), this instantly sent my mind into all kinds of worst case scenarios.  Red tide!  Still here!  Can’t see anything!  Could be rocks!  Could be sharks!  I’m a sitting duck!  I’ve wet my pants!  Am I drowning?  I might be drowning!

I put my little blue flippers in high gear and quickly brought myself ashore.  Once I was safely out of shark territory I slowed down and adopted more of a David Hasselhof saunter towards the others.  Did you see me almost bag that roosterfish?

Once back at Sole and Diego’s house, it was game time.  There were three guacamole entrants; Sandy (using her husband’s secret recipe), Heather and Jeff, and Sheena and me.  Diego and Sole made homemade garlic aioli, salsa, grilled chicken, carne asada, and taco fixings.  While we made guacamole, Sole kept the margaritas flowing.  She may have been trying to throw us off our game, but Sheena and I took our margaritas in stride and perfectly executed our guacamole.

In the end, each of us put our own spin on the traditional preparation.  Heather and Jeff infused theirs with finely chopped bacon and ample bacon grease.  Sandy added a dash of sugar, extra lime, and some cream cheese.  Sheena and I blackened some garlic cloves, turned them into a paste in a mortar, and then stirred them into the guacamole.  The stage was set.  Judge Diego positioned himself in front of the bowls.

We looked on eagerly as he cycled through the bowls.  Chip…dip…taste…(shifty eyes)…chew…(eyebrows tilt)…nod of the head…swallow.  So much was riding on the verdict.  If we lose, I thought, I will never be able to look my dad in the eyes again.  Black sheep.

Finally he finished his rounds and we waited in anticipation.  He grabbed a bowl and held it up.  “This one is the winner!”

It was our bowl!  It had been a while since we’d won at anything, so this was thrilling.  Oh, the sweet taste of victory!  I strutted around with my chest puffed out while Sheena squealed with excitement.

In the end we had a really nice dinner with our new friends.  We rested in a clean and comfortable bed,  ate great food, and laughed our brains out, thanks entirely to the kindness of strangers.

We didn’t follow a recipe for our guac, but if you want to make it on your own, here’s approximately what we did:

Nacho’s Guac-Off Championship Winning Guacamole

Cut up the following and put in a bowl:

– One large tomato

– One small white onion

– A handful of fresh cilantro

– Five avocadoes (cut them in half and spoon the insides into the bowl, save the pits for later)

– A teaspoon of salt, and one of pepper

– The juice from one lime

Now do this:

– Throw five or six garlic cloves in a skillet with a splash of oil and fry them until the skin turns black

– Mash up the garlic in a mortar or in a bowl with a spoon.  Now add it to the guac bowl.

– Stir up all of the ingredients with a fork, mashing the avocadoes as you mix.  Once everything is a nice chunky consistency, stop mixing.  Don’t get it too creamy, you want it chunky.

– Throw the avocado pits back into the bowl and stir them in.

– Taste with a spoon, add some salt, taste, add salt, etc. until it blows your mind.

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May 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

Monthly Summary – April 2012

After four months on the road, we decided it was time for a recharge.  It may be unfathomable to some that we would need a vacation from our vacation, but living in a van while navigating through foreign countries is challenging at times.  We usually try to stay in a hotel once every week or two so we can have a real bed and room to sprawl out, but this time we decided we would go to a house for a couple of weeks and not do anything except relax, read, write, relax, eat, drink, and relax.  It just so happened that our good friends Tommy and Brooke have a family vacation home in Costa Rica, and it was empty so they said we could stay there.

Our recharge plan has worked: we’ve been stationary for the last three weeks in a really nice house clinging to the side of a mountain on a coffee plantation.  We’ve been swimming a lot for exercise, getting to know the neighbors, cooking great food, hiking, and relaxing.  We had only planned to spend two weeks recharging, but Nacho has kept us here.  We dropped him off at the shop when we arrived, thinking a week would be enough to get all of the lingering maintenance issues taken care of.  In Mexico, after all, we had replaced all of the wheel bearings, did a brake job, and overhauled our steering in the space of two days.  Three weeks later, we still wait, and are becoming stir crazy.  No matter, we’re in a great place and will have a more reliable vehicle when we get under way.

In any case, or lingering in one place has done interesting things to our numbers.   During the first week of April our daily cost was around $100 (ouch!)  However, by the end this became our cheapest month so far.

Countries driven: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica

(This month in RED)

Miles driven: 468 (Trip Total = 7,074; odometer reads 283,574)

Total Spent: $1,743 (MONTH: $58.12/day, TRIP: $65.89/day)

Notes on our spending:

Gas – Gas remains expensive as we make our way through Central America, rarely wavering from the $5.50 mark, give or take.  Our gas expenditures in February, March and April were all within $11 of each other (the last 2 months were only $1 apart).  It seems that our traveling style results in an unwavering $350/month in gas in this part of the world.

What is unclear to me is how we only managed to drive 468 miles, yet still spend as much on gas as we do in a typical 1,700 mile month.  Something seems amiss in our numbers pertaining to mileage, but I’m just going to roll with it.  Or maybe I should start looking for gas leaks…Nope, a quick check of Google Maps shows that we missed some mileage in there.  This calls for a full-fledged investigation.  Beh, who really cares?

 VW Expenses – After we nearly burned Nacho down in Fray Bartolome, we decided we needed a surge protector to be used whenever we plug our van into land power.  We found an Ace Hardware in Northern Nicaragua, so we sprung for a 15 Amp surge protector.  Being in the Ace Hardware also came with the added benefit of feeling air conditioning for the first time in a really long time.

 Camping/Hotels – This month’s camping fees were extraordinarily low.  We spent $10/night for our last two nights in El Salvador, then spent $4/night for a few nights in Nicaragua.  Once we got to Costa Rica, the expenses disappeared.  We spent the last 21 days of the month in Costa Rica and didn’t pay for a single night of camping.  This was due entirely to the kindness of Costa Ricans and friends.

One night in Liberia we offered to pay a hotel to sleep in their side yard, but they told us we could camp for free.  Later we camped on a beach in Avellanas on someone’s property, but they didn’t ask for a penny (we left a tip anyway).  We were invited to spend a night in someone’s home in Playa Coco, which turned out to be an incredible experience, and yielded us several new friends.  Next we made our way to Atenas, where we were graciously permitted to stay in a friend’s vacation home, where we’ve been ever since.

There were a couple of hotel nights in there as well.  I got sick in Nicaragua, so we rented a room in a family’s home for a night.  Later, we rented a small beach cabin for two days in celebration of my birthday.  All in all this was a really cheap month for lodging ($121 in total).

 Food – This is one area where our costs continue to rise.  Our first four months have cost $518, $659, $929, and $989, chronologically.  This is one area where we’re not really willing to skimp; staying healthy on the road is paramount.  Besides, we’re food lovers and finally have the time to devote to eating as well as we possibly can, so we spend pretty freely here.  To compound matters, Costa Rica is about as expensive as the USA.  We’ve been shopping about once per week since we arrived, and usually spend $175 each time we go to the grocery store.  But then again, they have everything we could ever want here, so we don’t really care.  We’ve been eating barbecued pork tenderloin, ribs, hamburgers, and chicken, and have been drinking imported Belgian and German beer.  Could it get any better than this?  We haven’t eaten out at a restaurant, not a single time, in the last 3 weeks.

 Borders/Visas/Permits  – We crossed two borders at the beginning of the month in the same day.  To get from El Salvador into Honduras, and then from Honduras into Nicaragua, we paid $68.  Later on we crossed from Nicaragua into Costa Rica and paid $24.  Also, we’ve continued to stick to our guns and not pay any bribes, despite having been repeatedly pulled over by the police in Honduras and Nicaragua..

 Other – Our third highest category was the all-inclusive “other”.  This included a trip to the movie theater, a couple of yoga classes for Sheena, some supplies from Walmart, Skype telephone credit, an internet card (which doesn’t work), laundry, and various taxis and buses.

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