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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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, 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

DISCUSSION 12 Comments

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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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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