Jun 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 15 Comments

Monthly Summary – May 2012

A note before the blog:  Yesterday our transmission failed.  It’s just the next occurrence in a long string of mechanical failures, but we’re trying to roll with the punches and keep a good attitude.  We’ve had a lot on our plate and haven’t posted to our blog as often as we’d like.  We’ll try to do better, but in the meantime, if you’d like to keep up with us on a more daily basis, go to our Facebook page and click the “like” button.  This will allow you to stay up to date with the things that happen on a daily basis.  Like mechanical issues with Nacho…

In May we spent money like it was going out of style.  Nacho underwent what was supposed to be a thorough maintenance routine to get us ready for South America (although this plan backfired on us).  We also paid for the Panama side of shipping our van from Panama to Colombia, which ended up being very time consuming and very costly.  We also bought a second laptop and finally caved in and bought a GPS unit for driving directions.  This all added up to our most expensive month.  In fact, it was 2.13 times greater than our previous most expensive month.

For the sake of information, here’s roughly what it cost us to ship Nacho from Panama to Colombia, a distance of 250 miles.  Note that some of this goes into next month’s report, as it was spent on the Colombian side:

Shipping container:  $1,050

Port fees: $243

Flights:  $656

Hotels for 14 nights (yes, it took THAT long!):  $523

Buses, taxis, miscellaneous:  ~$60

`              TOTAL:  $2,532

There was supposed to be a new ferry service that would connect the two countries by now, but we are in Latin America, and so things happen at a different pace down here.  The original startup date was May 10, which would have allowed us to make the crossing for about $1,000.  As of now they’ve pushed the date back to July 2nd, but I suspect it’ll be the end of this year or the beginning of next before it actually starts running.

Fortunately we budgeted for this month’s shipping expenses.  However, we still managed to go over our budget by $1,358, largely due to the money we spent on Nacho, the GPS unit, and the new computer.  We’re not too sad about this though, because after five months of travel we’re still under budget.

Countries driven: Costa Rica, Panama

Miles driven: 926 (Trip Total = 8,000; odometer reads 284,500)

Total Spent: $5,399 ($174.17/day)

Notes on our spending:

Gas – This was our cheapest gas month so far, as most of our time was spent idle, trying to get Nacho on a dang ship.

VW Expenses – We spent around $800 on preventative maintenance while we were in Costa Rica.  In hindsight this was almost a total waste of money.  Almost everything the mechanic touched has since failed, and our engine leaks more oil now than it did before we replaced all of the oil seals.  The transmission has also started leaking from a new location.

We did find a nice Volkswagen parts house in Panama City – actually the first one we’ve seen since we left home.  We took advantage of this gold mine and bought a new clutch, clutch plate, transmission axle seals, brake caliper rebuild kits, and a few air filters.  Unfortunately they didn’t have any rear wheel bearing housings, so we probably have some more wheel bearing failures to look forward to.

 Camping/Hotels – The first 13 days of the month were free, as we were still in our friends’ house in Costa Rica waiting for Nacho to be finished.  The hotel bills really racked up later on though once we started the whole shipping ordeal.  In all our shipping process took 14 days, and we stayed in hotels the whole time.

 Food – Our food spending finally bucked its upward trend.  We’ve started eating out at local joints a little more than we have been over the last couple of months, which is usually far cheaper than cooking for ourselves.

 Borders/Visas/Permits  – Getting into Panama from Costa Rica was free.  The only expense incurred here was the obligatory car insurance at the border.

 Other – Almost a grand for “other”!?  It happens.  We’ve been sharing a laptop up until now, which has been a constant struggle.  Between web surfing, Skype, blog writing, Facebooking, Kindle syncing, and other computer-based activities, one computer just wasn’t enough.  We went to Valdemart and bought a small second computer for around $400.

Everyone we’ve met on the road so far has used a Garmin GPS unit to tell them where they’re going.  We decided before we started this trip not to use a GPS, because it would require us to interact more with “la raza”.  If we didn’t know the way, we would simply stop and ask directions.  This has served us up until now, but it has been a constant struggle.  Most of the time the people we ask either have no car of their own, or simply don’t know the correct directions, so they just make stuff up.  I’m not kidding.  It’s like they’re ashamed to admit that they don’t know, so they just make up directions.  It’s nothing malicious, it’s just the way it is.  The other issue is that the streets down here typically don’t have names, and it’s very hard to navigate.  We finally caved in and bought a Garmin Nuvi 50 for about $150 at a mall in Panama City.

Finally, we went to the Panamanian version of Home Depot and bought a bunch of tools, some new water filtration equipment (turns out you can’t buy the 3M water filters we need for our water sanitation system outside of the USA), and some various odds and ends.  This set us back a couple hundred dollars.

May: ouch.

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Jun 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 25 Comments

Not All Rainbows and Unicorns

Lying on my back under Nacho on the side of the road, my hair becoming matted in oily mud, It occurred to me: this is probably the first time in five months that an office desk didn’t seem like a bad place to be.  The events over the last 65 miles leading up to this point were almost unbelievable.  Like listening for hours on end of the bone-chilling sound of children’s laughter, this too was a test of endurance.

In Costa Rica, our planned two week stop in Atenas had turned into a month.  We had dropped Nacho at a shop for a week of TLC, but after a week they hadn’t yet started to work.  After two weeks, the engine and transmission were on the ground, but no real progress had been made.  Meanwhile, Sheena and I were going stir crazy.  The list of jobs I gave to the mechanic at the beginning was a half page long, including the replacement of several oil seals, new brake rotors, a clutch inspection and slave cylinder rebuild, and a full-fledged investigation into why our rear wheel bearings kept failing.  At this rate, we would be back on the road in a year.  Maybe two.

Week three in the shop saw me spending every day there, doing much of the work myself.  There was no other way we’d get back up and running otherwise. By the middle of week four, Nacho was ready to roll with new engine oil seals, transmission seals, an inspected clutch, new valve cover  and water pump seals, new brake rotors and front wheel bearings, and all new fuel lines in the engine compartment.  I also managed to install an industrial fuel filter before the fuel pump to combat silt-laden gas later in our trip. Notably absent from our list of complete projects was the full-fledged investigation into our rear wheel bearings – the main reason we stopped in the first place.  After a month, however, we were unable to hang around any longer. The rainy season had come, and we had long overstayed our welcome at our layover house.

At long last, a full month after we arrived in Atenas, we hit the road.  Our friends had invited us to go trout fishing in the mountains outside of Cartago, and as we climbed the steep road into the mountains, we saw the first bad omen: our oil pressure light started to flicker.  Without an oil pressure gauge, there wasn’t much I could do, so we kept driving.  Before long, we arrived at the dirt road that led to the trout pond.  Waiting for us at the turnoff were our friends James and Lauren, who, after having seen the road, assumed (correctly) that we’d need a tow up the steepest section.

A hundred yards down the dirt road, all hell broke loose in Nacho’s front end; in an instant it sounded like our van was being attacked by Langoliers.  You know, from that Stephen King movie.

I got out in the pouring rain and mud, and jacked Nacho up.  It was immediately obvious that something had gone horribly wrong; the front wheels were totally effed up, as we engineers say.  I took the wheels off and found that both hubs were about to come apart, and both wheels were hanging onto their spindles by a few threads.  Further investigation showed that our mechanic had failed to adequately peen both front hub locknuts, and they had almost completely backed off.  I disbelievingly unscrewed them the rest of the way with my fingers.

I reassembled the hubs and torqued the locknuts to the factory spec, and then peened them in place.  After putting everything back together we again got underway.  Some of the noise had subsided, but it still sounded like a dominatrix was whipping Nacho with a chain as we drove.  Not a nice dominatrix either – more like a truck driver dressed as a dominatrix.  It was bad.  We were only a few hundred meters from our camp, and decided to press on and figure it out later on when it wasn’t dark and raining.

In the morning, I found that one of our front brake caliper bolts had fallen out, and the other one had backed out 90% of the way.  This would have been due to improper torque being applied by the mechanics when they reassembled the brakes after we swapped rotors.  Our caliper had been smashing around as we drove on the dirt road, making all kinds of racket.  We walked back on the road and miraculously found the missing bolt, and then I remounted the caliper and set the torque on all of the brake caliper bolts.  With a  torque wrench.  The way Mother Nature intended it.

At the trout farm we met up with several of our overlanding friends; James, Lauren, Jessica, Kobus, and Jared.  We spent two days stream fishing (with limited luck), pond fishing (with ease, as the pond was stocked with trout), Dutch oven cooking, and seeking refuge from the newly arrived rainy season.  The pond was so well stocked, in fact, that it seemed like a great idea to try spearfishing for some trout.  You see, after so much time away from academia and other forms of intellectual stimulation, my mind is becoming soft like baby fat.

On the second morning, I wrestled myself into my wetsuit and donned my flippers and mask.  I slipped into the black, icy cold pond carrying my speargun, and put my head under the water.  It was worse than the red tide in Playa Coco.  In a small pond containing hundreds of slimy, writhing water-breathing beasts, I couldn’t see a thing.  Do trout have teeth?  So terrifying.  I held the speargun up in front of me, but couldn’t see as far as the tip.  It should have been obvious to me that if you can’t see the spear tip, you won’t see anything in front of the spear tip either.  The odds were stacked against me, but the frigid water was constricting the blood flow to my baby fat mind.  I hunted on.

After 15 minutes I had failed to spear anything and was teetering on the edge of hypothermia.  Our new friend Juan even came down and fed the fish all around me, trying to give me a clear shot.  Even with hundreds of trout bodies slapping my body in a feeding frenzy, it wasn’t to be.  My repeated blind shots failed to kill anything except for my dreams.  The trout had won.

Back on the road, we pointed toward Pavones in the far South of Costa Rica.  If all went well, by the following morning we’d be surfing the world’s second longest left hand break.  The mechanical gods had a different idea, and a few miles after leaving, while traveling up a long climb in the pouring rain, our front brakes overheated.  We pulled over as smoke billowed out from our front wheels.

After pulling the front wheels off, it became clear that our front brake pistons were frozen.  This meant that when I would apply the brakes, the pads would squeeze the disc brake, but wouldn’t retract, leaving our brakes on at all times.  I removed the brake pads and cycled the pistons in and out, trying to loosen them up.  I noticed that the rubber piston seals were shredded, allowing water and grit to fly right into the calipers.

Back on the road, we made it no farther than a few more miles before we smelled the unmistakable odor of burning asbestos.  My half-assed brake fix had failed to solve our sticky piston problem.  We pulled to the roadside, this time on a descent leading into an enormous valley in the middle of nowhere, and settled in.  I decided to rebuild our calipers there on the roadside, and make a crude repair to the dust seals with some RTV silicone.  We were ready to spend at least one night on the side of the road.

While removing the first caliper my wrench slipped and I ripped a chunk of flesh from my thumb on the fenderwell.  Not a great start.  As I pulled the first caliper from the van, a man walked up to us.  His engine had blown a few kilometers down the road, and he was trying to find some food for his waiting family.  He told us that if we were able to coast down to where he was stopped, his son, a mechanic from San Jose, would be arriving at 8:30PM to give him a tow.  He called him and verified that he would be able to help us out.

At 11:30PM, the man’s son and another mechanic showed up and started working on Nacho.  Rather than rebuild the calipers, they opted to cycle them in and out as I had done earlier, only this time they sprayed WD40 into the pistons.  Not quite as good, but it was enough to get all four pistons moving enough to move along safely.  We spent the night by the roadside, and in the morning we headed out.  I would just have to find a couple of caliper rebuild kits soon.  My new rotors had already warped due to the stuck pistons, and I would need to get everything back to normal before any more damage was done.

We carried on through San Isidro, and started the long descent to the coast.  I put Nacho in first gear and slowly crept along so as not to have to rely much on our brakes.  We arrived in Dominical late in the day and turned South on the coastal road.  A mile down the road, I heard a light tapping from the rear wheel.  I swerved a couple of times to assess where it was coming from, when all of a sudden we lost all engine power and a rapid beating sound erupted from our rear end.  It sounded like we’d run over one of those improvised explosive devices, but I quickly ruled that out.  Seemed unlikely.

As I got out, my mind first went to a transmission failure.  I really hoped it was a failed CV joint instead.  In the sweltering heat and humidity I lowered myself into the dirt and crawled under Nacho’s underbelly.  I grabbed the axle and it spun freely in my hand.  Somehow the passenger side outer CV joint had come completely unbolted from the stub axle.  All six bolts, the ones I’ve been battling for the last two years to keep tight, the ones I replaced right before the trip and slathered with “permanent” Loctite, had all come out.

Since the CV joint was exposed to the elements, I had no choice but to unbolt the entire axle and rebuild the joint.  This is a job I’ve done at least a half dozen times in my ongoing quest to keep the CV bolts from coming loose, so I knew exactly what to do.  What I didn’t count on was the downpour that started just before I was ready to crawl back under Nacho to bolt everything back in place.

As I lay there on my back, my hair becoming matted and my shirt becoming soaked in oily mud, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself.  This whole ordeal had started with preventative maintenance.  Then, in a span of 65 miles we had a tire puncture, an oil pressure light, had to be towed up two hills, our hubs came loose, our brake caliper bolts fell out, our brake pistons seized up, and our axle fell off.  Now I was lying on my back in a mud puddle with mosquitoes buzzing around my face while I slowly hit each of the 12 passenger side axle bolts with brake cleaner, wire brush, Loctite, and a torque wrench.

I will henceforth be doing all of my own auto mechanics, and that’s final.  There’s a reason I spent two tedious years learning how to work on Nacho correctly.   And while many days make our hearts want to explode with overwhelming joy, days like this remind us that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns out here.  But we’ve come this far, so what the hell.  Might as well see what tomorrow brings.

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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 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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