Different Worlds

I can’t do this. I can’t. I’m whispering to myself while surveying my surroundings. The more I take in the more I am ready to scream or possibly bolt, but instead I keep talking to myself with hopes of staying calm, and convincing myself to do what needs to be done. Oh man, I can’t…

There is no need to reveal the details of how I got there – it happens to be mostly Colin’s fault. Actually, it’s all Colin’s fault. A situation of meeting a generous family and then asking for the facilities. Since Colin went first he gave me the rundown as I was getting our camper bed set up for the night, “It’s a little hard to see, take your headlight, walk straight from our camper towards the house, it’s right behind a big tree, be careful of the steps they are a little unsteady.” I was looking directly at him as he gave me these simple instructions. His expression seemed normal, to the point. I grabbed my light, strapped it around my head, clicked the button and a soft glow led the way. It was really dark despite a dull light outside the main house across the yard. I took a second to scan my headlight around me, get my bearings and then focused on walking in a straight line just as Colin described. Soon I located the tree and could see a tarp hanging above a few steps. The steps were concrete blocks stacked loosely on top of each other to create a staircase leading up to the outhouse. I put my weight on the first block and then the second. I could feel how unsteady they were so I picked up my pace to the top and reached for the door. The floor was squishy and sagging under my weight. The walls were enclosed with a few tarps, the toilet was to my left, the lid was closed. As I shifted my weight to lift the lid the floor squeaked and a terrible feeling of falling through nagged at me. And then I wondered how deep the waste pit was below. All of these pings of fear would soon be replaced because I bent down to open the lid and in seconds a village of bugs scattered in every direction and a few launched down toward my feet. I started to kick my legs to make sure none of them clung on or crawled up my pants. This feet kicking dance worked and scared most of the bugs away. But then I looked back at the toilet seat and saw how many more were not frightened by my presence. I could see long antennas poking out from under the seat. Then more bug feelers were joining the party. I counted 5 long pairs while chanting in a whisper, I can’t do this. I played the scenario of what was getting ready to happen; drop my pants to expose a vulnerable bare bottom and then hover over the bugs and pray they don’t jump. I’m also praying I don’t fall through the floor and join whatever is down there. With my fist in my mouth I know this is the only choice and while Colin saw all of what I am seeing he could stand back and shoot for the hole…a few more roach like characters scurry across the floor and now I am taking it up a notch. Carrie, stop it. You can do this. You are going to do this. Hold on, hover, eyes closed and kill Colin.

Sun glowing on San Cristobal | Chiapas Mexico

Showers and Restrooms. Two reasons why so many folks upgrade to a camper with indoor facilities. Kicking up a toilet seat to find a party of wolf spiders, standing under a rusty pipe with a trickle of smelly water called the shower, and other fun times run in replay when we find ourselves with nice, clean and functioning showers and toilets. We sometimes wonder what we ever complained about in our former life of having full access to indoor plumbing. These are the things we dream about as we work our way back to the U.S.

City dog | San Cristobal, Mexico

Chiapas Mexico

Late night on the streets in Oaxaca

Art show in the streets in Oaxaca

3 More Borders To Go

From Honduras, we crossed back into old territory and a favorite place – Antigua, Guatemala. This time our stay would be short. Our vehicle permit was getting ready to expire so we needed to be in Mexico within a couple of days. We cut around Lake Atitlan on the CA-1 aiming for the border along a 4 lane highway. Over and around low hills, and busy Mayan towns. Here I go again pointing and hollering at Colin, “Look at that guy! Ooo, there’s another one over there! Check him out.” In groups, walking back from markets, sitting along roadside stands – it was the guys making the fashion statements. Flowy pants cut from busy colorful patterns, a matching flat skirt to go over the pants, a coat with more colors, and topped off with a hat. Some guys were combining more colors and patterns than others, but they all looked dressed for something or someone special. I took a few seconds to pull my eyes from the window and observe what I was wearing and took a glimpse at Colin. If our clothes were any indicator of our personality one would guess we like to be comfortable…in a bland sort of way. We are certainly not taking risks or pushing any fashion limits. I start thinking about New York City’s fashion week and wonder if the top designers have ever seen some of the outfits in Mexico or Central America. Along with their full line of accessories to match. From blazing neon dresses on the Guyami (Ngabe) women in Panama to the geometric hand stitched molas and string leggings on every Kuna woman, to the black goat skin skirts on Mayan women in Chiapas, Mexico and then these guys. All made and sourced locally. Not pictured on one pop culture magazine cover – it’s better, this is under ground fashion. We were once again awed by Guatemala. The beauty of the people reflected in the landscapes of the country.

Driving out of Guanajuato, Mexico

Coming Up Short

It’s our second time in San Cristobal, Mexico (Chiapas). We managed to put in a long day of driving.  Even before the sun could touch the streets of Antigua, we were already packed and vibrating over cobblestones heading out of town. We made it across the Mexican border with only one minor problem. It is mandatory to pass through the fumigation station where each vehicle drives into what feels like a brushless car wash. Instead of water we get doused with a formula that requires the handlers to wear masks and gloves. We don’t ask “What’s in that stuff?” We know it must be something strong because: here comes a side note…

{Way back when we picked up our camper from storage (November of 2014) we noticed a township of ants had made a nice life for themselves inside. We used traditional methods to kill them off, but every few days one would appear. We used different forms of poison and were starting to wonder if these ants were adapting and turning into super-ants. This continued to happen as we traveled across the country and finally stopped right after our first border crossing into Baja Sur. So, whatever they are pumping out of the spray station is strong enough to kill a rare breed of super-ants. We never saw one again.}

San Cristobal, Mexico

The agent managing the fumigation asks us for 150 pesos. I dig in my purse and come out with a look of oh no and a handful of coins which do not add up to 150 pesos. We try to explain the situation. Ummm, we don’t have enough money. The guy laughs at us and waits. We fling open the console with hopes of finding change that may have fallen between the phone charger cords, loose paper and other junk that gets shoved in a console. We find a few quarters, a couple quetzals and one penny. It’s not enough. The agent laughs again and tells his co-worker, who also finds this situation hilarious. They ask us if we ate too much lunch. They start to become real smart-asses. We translate their tone to mean, they think we are lying. We ask for an ATM and they laugh more. Ignoring us to allow paying customers to go through the spray, we sit and wonder, how did we decided to cross a border with no money? They will not take what we have and tell us an ATM is several kilometers away. We sit longer and finally Colin tells the agent we are driving through or driving by. They remind us, in a very sarcastic tone, to come back once we find the ATM and then watch us go through the spray while laughing. We get through, we get safely into Mexico and find an ATM about 70 km from the border. We do not go back.

Waterfalls in Chiapas

Happy Hiking, Mexico

 

Waging A War

Faces covered with black handkerchiefs, only the eyes left exposed. Women with their hair pulled back, braided. A single red star. And these letters – EZLN. Since arriving in Chiapas, the most southern state in Mexico, we start to see this image all over. Graffiti on city walls, posters in windows, painted on sidewalks. At first glance we think, thugs. We start to learn the truth.

Store in San Cristobal, Mexico

We stay at Rancho San Nicholas about a mile from the city center in San Cristobal. It’s a peaceful spot. Secured with a tall wooden fence, and filled in with pine trees, grass covered and nice areas to set up camp. They even have a community building with tables and chairs, a fire place and small kitchenette to share. It doesn’t feel like a hostel but more a like a cozy mountain retreat. After logging in so many hours driving the last few days we stay for a week. Almost every day we walk to town. A beautiful colonial town built on low hills and tucked between mountains. A few streets are pedestrian friendly, blocking off traffic and bursting with cafes. It’s an easy town to stroll through and find places with good food. The longer we stay the more we uncover. Tiny art shops along alley streets, a single-room craft beer bar, a courtyard to drink wine, museums and churches built on the high points of the city. A screen printing shop showcasing the image; the woman with her face covered, EZLN. I walk into a bookstore and see a section of books with the image on the cover. Back at camp I peel open the pages and start reading. It plays out like a history book – dry but also with alarming details. I feel rage and several times take a break to fold Colin into what I’m learning. EZLN stands for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional). San Cristobal was the center of the first revolt where Zapatista became a name people started to hear, started to know, started to follow. When playing by the rules leads to starvation, what do you do? For a group of Indigenous people along with other farmers living in rural Chiapas who all need the land for food and survival, and that land gets taken away, what happens? The Mexican government promised at one point that each family could submit a claim for land. Once the claim was accepted the title would be granted. The only problem was the many hands each claim must pass through…”land claims involved some 22 different government groups and public agencies a 27 step process…it took an average of more than 7 years for the federal government to approve a claim that had already been provisionally accepted by state authorities.” (Basta! Land & The Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas).  What were people supposed to do in the meantime? These claims were for tiny lots, not for commercial use but for family survival. After years and years of voices getting lost in the distance from poverty to power and government promises trickled down to a puddle of water on a hot desert floor – something had to change. In an effort to send a message that would not get lost or forgotten, a group in Chiapas got organized and took up arms. They marched into the center of San Cristobal and started ringing bells. There are more details, pages filled with the Zapatista movement and the root of each problem – so many problems – to get to the point of the group’s beginnings. What I have described is a very summarized piece. With so much suffering in our world; the covered face, the eyes full of anger and justice, EZLN – the image of change, the image of hope.

Working – Mexico

We don’t want to buy your trinkets, but we will pay you for a picture!

Sunset over San Cristobal, Mexico

Selling Trinkets…

A Personal Touch

We didn’t realize how much we love colonial towns until looking back. Some of our favorite places have been the old towns. Cobblestones, blocks of crooked buildings tightly tucked around squares, each a blend of different colors, open markets, food crisping over flames, the smell, the sounds, the people moving through their lives and us sitting back to watch. From San Cristobal we climb back to Oaxaca and run into more travelers – a couple we meet for the first time and another we are seeing for the second time. They convince us to head towards Guanajuato. It’s their favorite city in Mexico. We can’t possibly skip it and they all sound so convincing.

Guanajuato, Mexico

Guanajuato, Mexico

A nice centerpiece, Guanajuato, Mexico

A nice centerpiece, Guanajuato, Mexico

City Camping…Guanajuato, Mexico

They love color in this town! Guanajuato

Sprite meets a friend.

On our way to Guanajuato we get off track, on a mission. When we were in Todos Santos on the Baja we browsed a few pottery stores. Pottery was everywhere – cups, bowls, plates, you name it. We purchased 2 coffee mugs from one store in Todos Santos and the gentlemen packing up our cups explained what we were curious to know; Where does all this pottery come from? Several families in the Pueblo region in Mexico make it and ship it to touristy areas along with someone in the family who speaks English (not always with an English speaker but in this case it was true). Once we got to the state of Pueblo we had no clue where to look, but sometimes the road knows where to go. And took us past a store just outside of the city of Pueblo with pottery flowing out of the front doors and spilling onto the lawn. We pulled in. The sweet young gal working at the store gave us the full scoop. Her family made all the pottery and they live just up the street, “Do you want to come over and see?” “Sure!” The dad and mom pull up, they lock the store and we follow them around town (trying to keep up) through traffic lights and traffic. They stop in front of a house with a large garage door. The dad hops out and waves us over. We walk into a huge workshop. Pottery is stacked in piles, and next to piles, and on the wall, and on every shelf. Moving into a side room the dad explains in Spanish what’s happening. A worker sits on a wooden stool dipping a clay pot into primer. The next room there are about 5 women sitting on short stools around buckets of paint, holding pieces of pottery close to their eyes and carefully painting designs. An open doorway leads to a courtyard with troughs lined up full of clay in different phases. Grabbing a hunk of clay and rolling it into his hand, dad goes through the process. Breaking down chunks of rock, to fine grain like pieces, to clay, drying it out, working a blob on the pottery wheel. Then the primer, paint, cooking time and show piece.

Finished on the wall – Pueblo, Mexico

Before cooking

Done!

Carefully Painted

We are thrilled with this unexpected tour and meeting their family. For around $37.00 we ended up with 2 large platters (one would later get smashed by USPS), 4 cups and they gave us a tea cup at no charge and said, thank you for coming in and taking the time to meet us.

Dip Time

Coming Home

Our last night in Mexico we park under a light post near a cement guard rail at a Pemex station. The attendant directed us to this spot, the bathrooms will be open for 24 hours and so will the gas station. There is heavy traffic coming in, filling up and heading out. We are not surprised since the U.S. border is just a few miles away. In our camper, under the pyramid of light from the lamppost, we discuss what lies ahead. After almost 6 months living in countries so different from home, it’s a strange feeling to realize that the next morning we will wake up, drive a few miles and cross a line.  A line so many go to unbelievable and unimaginable extremes to cross.  We can’t choose which side we are born on.  We have never felt so grateful.

{More pictures below…}

Guanajuato

He smiles and waves after this picture!

Side street – San Cristobal

Nacho Libre, anyone?

Love these! We purchased the two in the background. Oaxaca

Back in Oaxaca…food is sooo good!

An entire town filled with homes just like this…near Pueblo

Sprite, tucked back by Colin’s shoes (poor thing)

Guanajuato

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For Our Next Trick…Retorno

Looking forward, yet heading back.  The feeling of dread burned deep.  Like the moment a mountaineer reaches the summit, only to turn around and face the harder challenge…getting down. Our descent is The Return.  The borders, the miles, the hassle.  Charting and planning with our maps spread wide, we replayed the details of the day we crossed 2 borders, touched 3 countries, survived the 12 hours it took and swore – never again.  We knew this was coming.  The day we made the decision to turn around in Panama, to put South America back on our “must do in this lifetime” list, we knew each mile traveled was a mile we had to repeat.  Colin was getting pretty creative on ways we could avoid The Return. “Screw it! Let’s just max out our credit cards and get on that ferry.  How much is Sprite worth? Can she do anything to bring in some money? Are the Zapatistas hiring or at least recruiting?” And then he came up with something we were qualified to undertake, “You know those guys who drive through town with a speaker bolted to the hood of their car shouting for ‘metales, metales, metales, botellas, botellas, botellas’ we could do that.” In an effort to prove he was the right man for the job, he clenched his hand as if holding the CB and repeated the words with his exaggerated-muffled Spanish accent. I was convinced he sounded right on target, but where do we get a speaker? And how do we carry all these metals, metals, metals and bottles, bottles, bottles?

We camped with a guy in Costa Rica who also had a few ideas for us, “You could get precious stones like onyx in Honduras and sell them to the hippies who make jewelry…” He paused for a second because a better idea was forming, “Or you could get the stones and just make the jewelry yourselves!” Colin was the one who responded first, “Where might one find these precious stones?”

At an attempt to return with the same adventurous spirit we embodied coming down, we decided to change our route, change our attitudes, take new roads, give up our judgements and give second chances. Nicaragua, What beauty are you hiding? Honduras, Are you more than a murder rate?  El Salvador, Sorry but we will leave you to the surfers.  Costa Rica, Is your Caribbean side as charming as your Pacific coast? We played this game of what’s and if’s and began to drive north…6 more borders to go.

A Sea of Blue Bags: The Other Side of Costa Rica

She looks so happy with her hair tucked under a heaping basket of fruit balanced on her head, her bosom pushed up in a puffy dress.  Pretty in blue and stuck on every Chiquita banana.  The golden fruit took off –  by the 20th century bananas surpassed coffee as Costa Rica’s most lucrative export. (Lonely Planet)

Bananas!

A landscape of banana plants, short palm like plants that run in rows broken up only by the road and surrounding mountains.  Blue bags cover each bunch of bananas and act like a protective barrier, but we learn the bags hold pesticides.  Every banana sits in a sack of poison.  We see blue bags sitting in ditches and along the road side.  We pass signs that warn of danger and suggest watching out when aircrafts are present since they fly low, over plants unloading more pesticides.  We see people taking bananas straight from the blue bags selling them at roadside stands.  The banana towns are built on the only plots of land not covered by banana plants.  Run down apartments, paint faded and peeling.  Some with doors, most without.  A few stores rest along the roadside, but the over all feeling here is depressing.  We couldn’t be further from the colorful produce aisles in a U.S. super market.  The neat piles of yellow bananas on the shelves, the blue sticker of a pretty and smiling Ms. Chiquita.

Watch out!

Check out those bags

I imagine the Caribbean as shallow blue water, a visible sea floor.  Couples snorkeling just off the shore, cushioned lounge chairs and pineapple drinks wait for their return.  All these thoughts are great, but would be the very opposite of what we found.  Think Bob Marley music and Rastafarian vibe.  Rough waves punching dark sandy beaches.  Tons of rental cabins and “beach shacks” several places to buy wacky hats with strands of dreadlocks sewn to the rim.  The rainforest was plentiful and we had a wonderful couple of days at Camping Maria near Playa Negra.  Maria, the owner, and her mother kissed us when we left, sent us off with a prayer and thick fried tortillas.

A perfect place to spend a few days. Camping Maria

Hard to leave…Camping Maria

Maria’s place was on the water, surrounded by trees and all sorts of cool bugs and other creatures. Grasshoppers the size of pickles (we’re not talking the small ones, more like the big fat dill size) and frogs with black puzzle piece shaped spots on a turquoise body.  Bats asleep on the underside of a fern.  Other than her place, we would recommend the Pacific side of Costa Rica, without a doubt, and inland along the spine of the country (Osa Peninsula, Manuel Antonio, Arenal volcano, Monteverde Cloud Forest, scenic drives along the southern central area were a few of our favorite spots).  A treat was spending our last few nights in the country at the finca where we started this Costa Rica journey – Canas Castilla.  Agi (owner and amazing cook) greeted me with a big hug.  She showed me the renovations to the camper bath house, filled me in on the happenings around the farm and recent travelers. It felt like coming home.

Heading back to Canas Castilla…back roads | Costa Rica

It’s Not You It’s Us…No, It’s You

Bracing ourselves for Nicaragua was like giving a cheating boyfriend a second chance.  You try to look at the positive aspects of the relationship – focusing on his good qualities. But that sour stench of broken trust seems to ooze out from his pours.  As the stink ultimate kills the relationship, you walk away knowing you tried, knowing you gave it one last good shot.

We pulled out our optimistic outlook.  Folding the past into the archives and setting out to see this place with a fresh perspective.  We drove into new territory that lead over bumpy gravel, slinging us back and forth across the road and around tobacco fields.  Long two story barns looked old and historic, with open shutters exposing hanging leaves of tobacco.  Over an hour later and the scene is the same; more long barns, more hanging tobacco, field next to field, big full trees setting the boundaries.  The smokey smell, the symmetry of rows, the horses in the fields.  A time past brought to the present.  This was a different Nicaragua.  The bribing cops, and blank stares, and starving animals, and constant honking cars, and whistles and grime were gone – lost in the beauty of this place.  We worked our way towards camp passing cattle farms fenced in by rock walls.  A landscape with low growing shrub trees and taller trees with moss dripping off its branches.  My favorite part was a tour we took with a farm owner through a farm and rainforest; with trees and plants used for back pain, headaches or for catching a buzz (I swear the rainforest has everything).  Our guide stopped by a seemingly normal tree and cut a slit into the bark with his knife.  The tree bled.  A red stream of blood poured down the trunk.  He pressed the pad of his finger into the stream and rubbed the blood onto his palm.  It foamed up like soap then he dabbed it onto his face.  A bleeding tree for the skin.  Where can I buy one of these?  The blood was actually the tree’s sap and used for an antiseptic.

Off the beaten path in Nicaragua

Later we would find Volcan Masaya and Somoto Canyon and nod to each other that this was nice, but we couldn’t avoid moving through the towns that connected these places and again it brought back old feelings.  Other than a couple spots and the bloody tree, we just did not love Nicaragua.  So we did what only Overlander’s can do, we drove on.

Volcan Masaya

Somoto Canyon

Diamond in the Rough

It was pleasant crossing into Honduras.  I am aware I just used the word “pleasant” and “crossing” in the same sentence, but it’s true.  The borders going back were no where near as horrible the second time around…with the exception of leaving Nicaragua.  I swear I heard the border man say, “Don’t let the door kick your ass on the way out!” It kicked us alright, a few times for good measure.  (On a side note: all this kicking by borders led to a good story. Our first ever published – on a site we love and use often so it was exciting to see us there: Expedition Portal, The Not so Glamorous Side of  Overlanding)

After carefully reading the State Department’s warnings, followed by staticics which were full of very convincing reasons to avoid their list of towns in Honduras, “The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens that the level of crime and violence in Honduras remains critically high…has had one of the highest murder rates in the world for the last five years…certain areas of the country demonstrate higher levels of criminal activity than others…” (US Department of State website).  I wrote them down in my red notebook.  In bold.  Page bookmarked. Highlighted AVOID on my map.  We drove right down the main artery and into the guts of the worst one, also the largest – Tegucigalapa.  We can admit this now since we are safely cruising around the U.S.  Don’t worry mom and dad, it was during the day.  And we didn’t veer off the main road, following a semi loaded with goods. “This guy must be going straight through on the most direct route,” Colin explained his theory while moving his grip to 10 and 2.  “I’m following him.” Sounded good to me since my plan was still in the forming stage.

Pushing through the city like a snowplow, the semi leaves a clean path for us to follow – we stayed close behind.  If he changed lanes, we changed lanes.  If he turned, we turned.  It worked.  The only problem was me…giving Colin the play-by-play of what exactly we were driving through.  “Just look, quick! Over there!” As I pointed towards his side window.  “Holy shit! You’ve gotta look over there.”  Now I’m pushing my finger against my window.  Colin comments in a not so friendly tone, “Sure I’ll look, let’s just pull over here… how about a picnic?”  I realize the importance of keeping up with the semi, but what I see must be seen. We are in the bottom of a humongous dirty brown bowl. From my view point all sides of the city go up.  Thousands and what seems like millions of houses stacked on top of more houses.  Not in order, not with roofs, not finished.  They are scattered, dilapidated, rusty.  They are squished so tightly together and cover so many square miles it makes me tell Colin once more, “You just gotta look.”  Once we clear the city limits, the road gets wider, the lanes open up leaving the chaos behind us with a view where Colin can finally see.  It’s a snapshot of the entire city below us, spread out wide, pushing farther than we can see with our own eyes.  “I can’t believe we just drove through that, ” Colin says with a look of amazement.

That was the worst part of Honduras.  A nice distance from Tegucigalapa we pull over to buy some treats from a vendor.  I kept seeing these tiny ring shape cookies everywhere.  On billboards, in stores and now on a sign plastered to a roadside stand.  Colin runs over to get some and when he returns with the goods he tells me the vendor had him sampling a little bit of everything while explaining the ingredients of each product.  He was cheery and seemed happy to have our business.  The cookies were terrible.  What I imagine dry dog treats taste like, but we kept eating them hoping maybe it was an acquired taste.  And because the vendor was so likable, we just wanted to like the treats.

Checking things out from the camper

While sitting off the side of the road choking down dog treats, we noticed all the pine trees.  We were cruising at a higher elevation and except for the highway, we were surrounded in beautiful green forest. This continued. Hills, trees, mountains, clean. Every town, people waved, smiled, were helpful.  There are a handful of National Parks in this region and a popular brewery conveniently located right in the middle, with pretty good beer, and welcomed camping.  We considered staying longer, checking out some of the popular treks, parks and area highlights (which is a surprising long list) but our vehicle permit was getting ready to expire so we made the decision to keep moving.  We met a few groups of travelers who all had the same thought, Honduras is a gem! Our last stop was through Copán to see the ruins.  I hung back with Sprite and opted to skip it.  Colin still tells me, it was one of his favorite stops.

Copán Ruins

Copán Ruins

At this point in The Return, we are on a high from the Honduras portion and really looking forward to seeing Guatemala for the second time, since it was awesome the first time around.  We also started to cross paths with Overlander’s we had met coming down, who we got ahead of and now seeing them again.  These reunions felt like meeting up with old friends.  A lot can happen in just a month or two and the stories would be an exchange of what went wrong, what went well, what to avoid and what not to miss.

Love these two…and the ways they do breakfast!

Germans, Kiwis and Americans…all meet up in Oaxaca

3 more borders to go…

A real time update: All of the above happened during the summer.  We landed back in the U.S. in the middle of July crossing the Laredo border into Texas.  After spending almost 6 months in Mexico and Central America it was a small shock to the system.  In a good way!  We spent the rest of the summer (until now) wandering; hitting up lots of National Parks, little towns, scenic drives, hikes…feeling grateful and happy to be exploring this country.  At 11 months in, we are making the most of our last month. Wondering how it went by so fast.  Wondering what happens next.  Hoping I took good notes to finish this blog…

 

“So…which direction do you wanna go?”  I ask Colin as I dig around the french fry bag hoping for the last few that might have fallen out of the red cardboard container.  We are sitting outside McDonalds in David, Panama, parked close enough to get their free wi-fi.  Which also means we are close enough to smell whatever they are pumping out of that place.  It overwhelms the air and drifts in through the truck vents taunting our senses, and at some point during our internet search one of us will say, “Who’s going in to get the fries?”  We both agree, McDonalds has some sort of potion that makes anyone who comes close start to crave those golden greasy sticks.  This doesn’t answer the question of why we also end up ordering two ice cream cones to go with the fries.  So, no, McDonalds wi-fi is not exactly free.

Outside of Volcan, Panama

Colin grabs the fry bag and takes another look, but I have already found and eaten the last two fries.  “Well, we can go to the end or turn around now?”  We look at the map that is split down the seam, as Colin traces our route with his finger I am holding the two pieces together.   As this debate over timing and pace goes on in the truck with our windows down, we hear someone asking about our Lightforce lights that sit in a row on our front bumper and look like they could light up an entire street at night… they can.  Roger introduces himself while resting his arm on the driver’s side door while we tell him the reasons we love those lights. (Such as waking up in the middle of the night on a secluded beach on the Osa Pensinusa and realizing the tide is coming in fast and perhaps we misjudged how close to the shore we set up camp.  At 1am we find ourselves packing up and trying to navigate back through the jungle.  A flip of the switch and all 5 lights power on and send a wide tunnel of bright light through a path that a few seconds before was completely black). We tell him our dilemma about driving to the end of the road in Panama or turning around to head back north towards home.  “It’s not a question in my mind,” he says and shifts to talk to us using both hands,  “You have to see the Panama canal.”  Roger is from the U.S. but moved to Panama to take advantage of the cheaper cost of living and the sunsets along the southern coast.  He and his wife built a house and so far, “other than bribing a cop every now and again,” they love it.  He came to Panama to work on the canal  and is still awestruck by that narrow trench of water, the locks built just wide enough for a freighter to pass, an achievement that took more than 75,000 workers to build and over 10 years to complete.  Colin looks over at me with a slight shrug, “I guess we are going south.”  Roger gives us his card and suggests that on our return trip, if we are looking for a place to park and plug in, to give him a call.  He wishes us all the best and we do the same for him.  He walks away and we pull out of McDonalds heading south towards the Panama Canal and then the last stop in the Darien Province, which is the furthest destination the road reaches in Central America.  After that, it’s dense wild jungle for miles.

Darien Province

Taking Advice from Strangers

Talking to Roger sent us on our final path through Panama heading south towards the canal, but before that conversation we had already been traveling through the country for a few weeks.  Our biggest struggle was trying to find camping.  A struggle in one sense, but in another we were introduced to Panama by way of not knowing where to go or what to look for.  We just went.  The only thing we knew about Panama before we crossed the border was the canal, after that it was an expectation we could not create – we had nothing to base it on.  We found ourselves in places that were not in travel books and in a few cases, not on the map.

Bocas Del Toro, Panama

Shot from Ferry on our way to Bocas Del Toro

Where Does the Road Lead?

We really did not do our homework before venturing into the Darien.  A few quick minutes on Google, we emailed a couple of tour groups to see if we could arrange anything.  And found out it requires a special guide and more advance notice and along with the risks to Sprite’s health all equated to not exploring beyond where we could drive.   But we still wanted to see what the end of the Pan-American highway was all about – the last stop on a road that winds almost continuously from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina with one break at the Darien Gap.  Our curiosity got the better of us as we continued towards Yaviza, the last town on the Central American portion of the Pan-American Highway.

Sprite learns she is not always the boss!

Our rule about not being on the road after dark was being threatened as we drove through the rain, on the two lane CA-1 (Pan-Ameican highway) south of Panama City.  Towns were getting smaller and spaced further apart. Homes went from one-level block construction to two-level huts with thatched roofs and open sides. Another few miles and we spotted a sign with a school symbol and the name of a town with an arrow pointing off the main road.  Colin had the idea of checking it out and seeing if maybe we could get permission to camp near the school.  Just for the night and be gone in the morning.  The dirt road was now thick mud, the rain still coming down as we continued crawling towards the school.  A few adults were huddled together under the overhang of the town’s one tienda.  We stopped so Colin could jump out and ask about parking for the night.  Through the rain streaks running down the passenger window, I could see a group of kids taking advantage of the weather and playing soccer… more like soccer was just an excuse to slide in the mud and tackle each other.  They were soaked, mud covered and having a blast.  Still in the truck, I look away from the kids and try to see if Colin is making any progress.  He looks blurry through the window, but I can see he’s talking to the group at the tienda and then a young guy walks up to him.  Now they are talking and hand signals are going and the young guy is pointing to something on the other side of the store.  Colin nods and runs back to the truck. Shaking the rain off his coat and hair, he tells me about Jonathan, the guy he was talking to.  Jonathan is the only one who speaks English so when the group could not understand why Colin was asking to camp near the soccer field, they started to shout through the downpour for Jonathan.  Jonathan’s uncle lives near the store and said we could park in front of his house.  When we pull up towards the house, the uncle walks out of his front door and waves us over to a wooden bench built under the porch roof, which shields us from the rain.  Over slow and short sentences,we learn he is the pastor of the village. Where our understanding falls short, the pastor does his best to use hand gestures in order to fill in the blanks.  As the rain dissipates, he stands up and invites us to follow him.  We walk along the road we came in on.  He points to a couple houses and other churches, waves to kids passing by, and stops briefly to explain something about the mountain sitting as a backdrop of the village.  We don’t fully understand everything he is saying due to our language barrier, but we are pretty sure he said something about Jaguars and don’t go there.

Huts along the Pan-Am near Yaviza, End of the Road

{Side note:  Later we discuss the importance of language.  We spent hours upon hours planning for this trip.  The Spanish lessons fell through the cracks along with the stash of extra strength Frontline for Sprite – who picked up several ticks as a result.  No one can expect to learn every language, but for us, we planned to spend a year mostly in Spanish speaking countries.  Our biggest reason for traveling south was to learn about the people who live on the other side of the line.  How do you learn when you can’t speak?  This is also a testament to the people who stood listening to our stuttering words, waiting patiently for us to try and piece together a point.  They were so encouraged by our effort that they tried with their best ability to understand, to suggest words, to draw pictures in the dirt. Which leads to our next lesson:  Try.  Make an effort.  Body language goes so much further than you might think and small phrases in their language go miles past that.}

When we return to the pastor’s house Jonathan is waiting.  His dark hair cut short around the sides and grown longer on the top, which he combs through with his fingers.  A wide smile.  He starts to show us to a room in his uncle’s house where we can sleep.  We thank him but try to explain that we sleep in our camper.  They give us a confused look as they both stare at this “thing” sitting in the bed of our truck.  Colin explains that it pops-up and we live and sleep inside.  A tour is scheduled for the morning.  With that, Jonathan leads us to a patch of trees and plants behind his house.  He explains each plant and every tree.  They all have a purpose – some to eat, others for medicine and a few to make handicrafts.  There is a cage hanging from one of the branches with a squirrel inside.  He tells us that the squirrel is their pet.  They open the cage during the day so the squirrel can rome around, but he always returns at night.  Meanwhile, in another tree near the squirrel two green parrots sit watching us.  I wonder if the parrots realize they are lucky to have traded with the squirrel.

At this point we have no idea who these people are or the village we have invited ourselves in to.  We notice the men are wearing jeans and button down shirts, the boys prefer soccer jerseys and shorts, but the women seem to wear bright floral printed skirts down to the knee with a plain solid color t-shirt or tank top.  All the women and even the girls wear this outfit.  We are invited into the grandmother’s home.  A two -level home, built with wide boards and huge square cutouts for windows.  The windows have no glass or screens.  The floor is dirt and we sit along a wooden table and get introduced to Jonathan’s aunt and other uncle, their 2 year old son and his grandfather and grandmother, who all live under the same roof.  The 2 year old with full cheeks waddles from his mother and falls into her arms and then he’s off to grandma and again receives a big hug.  He walks from person to person, getting a hug and a laugh.  All questions are directed toward Jonathan who translates back and forth.  They want to know how we found them.  Where are we from?  Do we have kids?  They are curious about Sprite and where she sleeps.  And does she “go poop inside?”  We try to explain that Sprite is trained to go outside.  They laugh that the dog is better trained than the 2-year old who poops where he wants.

Jonathan points over to his grandmother who has gentle eyes and long wavy brown hair.  He says Grandma doesn’t know much Spanish because her first language is Embera.  They are all Embera, but only the older generation knows the language fluently.  The grandmother explains that they used to live in the Darien, deep in the jungle, but moved just outside because life was easier.  Then the government decided to build a dam which flooded several Embera Villages.  They were displaced to the spot they live now.  Colin asks her if they like living here or wish they had their original home back.  Everyone looks around at each other as if to see what the others think.  They all start nodding yes.  They like this place.  Someone calls out from the window for Jonathan.  He asks us if we want to see his house and meet his parents.  Like shadows we follow Jonathan and do as he does.

Notice the “Monkey Stick” with Jonathan’s dad

A few feet across the muddy yard sits another home built in a similar style as the grandparent’s.  The windows are open but they have shutters to close.  The floor is smooth cement.  There is a neat row of muddy shoes along the outside stoop.  We remove our shoes and add them to the line up.  Inside we shake hands with Jonathan’s dad and his mom.  His cousin is also there and looks about the same age as Jonathan, same dark hair, same style.  They also want to know how we found them.  Our conversation weaves around topics that flow easily  (with the help of Jonathan).  The Embera culture has changed in a lot of ways.  The younger generation is not interested in learning the language or the traditions.  Religion has also morphed.  As we venture on to the topic of religion and Jesus, grandma comes in through the back door.  Jonathan asks her in Embera what she believes.  She grabs a wooden cane that was resting along the wall and gently closes her eyes.  She makes a low whistling sound like wind in the trees and moves the cane up and down her arm.  Jonathan looks over at us to explain, “the Embera way is Wishes.” Jonathan and his parents don’t believe in Wishes, they believe in Jesus.  Missionaries introduced them to the ideas of Christianity, but it wasn’t until Jonathan’s dad was bitten by a fer-de-lance snake and became really sick that they began to pray to Jesus.  The dad rolls up his pant leg to expose jagged scars that cover his skin.  He was saved.  And Jesus trumped the Wishes.  Mom comes out from the kitchen with bowls of food and cups of tea.  Fried fish with plantains.  Between bites of fish, voices continue to fill the room with interesting questions from each person and move through Jonathan for translation.  Every year they hold traditional dances where the men cover their bodies in a dark ink dye which stains the skin for days.  Jonathan disappears into his room and comes out with a small bottle of ink to show us.  Jonathan is learning the Embera language and very interested in the dances and old way of life.  “It’s very important to me,” he says with a proud smile and continues to describe what he has learned from his grandparents. We talk about their work, their family, their handicrafts.  Mom pulls out her beautiful tightly woven baskets and bracelets, and two masks.  The dad goes to get his work.  The wooden cane that grandma was wishing on has been carved out with simple tools.  A snake curls up the body of the stick.  The top has a monkey’s head and on the side a gecko – the animals symbolize the movement through life. Grandma leaves and comes back with her baskets.  The missionaries have helped them market and sell their handicrafts in order to make money.   We buy one basket from mom and one from grandma.  Colin looks over the cane with the monkey head carved on top and Jonathan’s dad begins to talk about his hobby.  It takes him a long time to make the canes using simple tools, to shape them, to smooth them out with a cloth, but he enjoys woodworking.  He built this house were we sit.  “These are really nice and unique,” Colin says to the dad and then suggests, “You should sell these!”  Jonathan responds that he does sell them but with the lack of good tools it takes dad a long time to make and the one Colin is holding is far from finished.  Colin sees this cane as perfect, “To me it looks great the way it is.”  Jonathan hesitates and asks if Colin is interested in buying it.  “Maybe…but I’m not sure I can afford it.”  I already know Colin is in love with this cane and this story and these people.  They circle together to come up with a price and Jonathan tosses it out to Colin saying they feel a fair price for an unfinished cane is $20.00  There is no need to negotiate.  Colin pulls out the money and gives it to the dad, who stops and squeezes Colin’s hand with a tight grip, looks him straight in the eye and whispers, “Thank you.”  Colin is more thrilled than the dad will ever know.  They are both very happy.  At some point I notice its after 10pm and the dad has leaned back against the wall and fallen asleep.  Jonathan taps him and he jolts back to life.  We all laugh at this and decide its time for us to go back to our camper.  We are shaking hands and saying good night.

Some of the Embera Family we met!

We hear pounding in the morning and take a peek through the camper screen to see an entire group of guys gathering materials and stacking sacks of concrete-mix on the grass.  The pastor mentioned that they were all gathering to build a new church.  The old church stands behind them with wide boards and a leaky roof.  We can’t figure out why they don’t fix the old one but decide not to ask.  Jonathan’s aunt and mom have come over to check out our home.  They boost themselves inside and I, without using many words, show them around.  I start to pull out the bed and jump on top and say “dormir.” I open the cabinets and grab the pots and pans.  I open the spice cubby and the drawer that stores the silverware, plasticware and utensils.   I turn on the fan that’s installed in the ceiling and flick on the lights.  At every move I make they look at me once they understand and say with their mouths open while nodding, “ahh hah.” The aunt runs her fingers over the counter and cabinets and then asks Jonathan’s mom something.  I think they are trying to figure out what the laminate is made of.  It looks like the grain of real wood, but is very far from it.  The three of us are sitting on the camper couch when Colin pops his head in and they wave and say “adios!”  More people come over and start to dip their heads inside to see what we are doing.  Soon the guys are hollering that they need to start building the church. But first we need to take a picture.

Coin & Pastor at old church

The pastor comes over to get a picture with Colin and then he shakes his hand and heads over to work on the church.  The grandma embraces us with hugs.  She holds our hands and says something in Embera.  I can tell by her soft glance and the way her words are slowly coming off her tongue she is giving us well wishes.  Jonathan’s dad comes over and wants to talk to Colin.  He wants a picture with Colin and the monkey stick.  He gives Colin another handshake squeezing both hands holding them for a few moments.  We try to tell Jonathan how much we appreciate all his translating, showing us around, and allowing us to stay. We came there hoping for a place to park and we leave with new friends and Colin’s prized monkey stick.

We talk a lot about happiness.  Where can you find it?  The answers to that come in a million forms, a million ways, a million reasons.  There is a village, south towards the Darien jungle, off a muddy road not listed on a map.  There is a family who did not know our names, had never seen our faces.  Opened their doors, fed us dinner, asked us about our lives.  They wanted nothing in return. They are not searching for more, because everything they need and want is around them.

River along the Darien in Yaviza

What Happens at the End?

We travel the last piece of the Pan-American highway by dodging pot holes and vibrating over washboard.  A military stand blocks the road and an officer comes over to the driver’s side window.  The military requires every person going into the Darien province to sign in.  We have to include our names, passport information and how long we expect to be in this area and why we are here.  The military is doing their best to regulate this area, block the drug runners that sneak through, but it is a losing battle.  Once we get the thumbs up we move past the orange cones and head towards Yaviza.  A road shoots through the middle of town.  It’s barely as wide as our truck.  Along each side there are bars and loud music and people stumbling, drunk, to the beat.  People shout and dogs run along between bar stools hoping to lick up a few crumbs.  We learn later that we happen to arrive on the weekend of the cock fights – each year it’s a huge festival with parties from the morning until night fall.  We make it past the row of bars and around a few parked cars until the road stops in front of a bridge.  We get out and walk over the bridge and stop when we are in the middle.  A swift brown river runs below us.  A few wooden canoes move under the bridge and we watch them head down river.  This is the bridge that connects the last town to the Darien jungle.  From this point it is dense and wild and nearly impossible to access.  You step in alone and you’re on your own.  For all the miles we traveled to get here, it’s the first time we feel unsafe.  From the bridge we take a shot of our truck sitting at the very end of the road – the Pan-American Highway, the last stop in Central America.  It’s not a beautiful town or an interesting spot, just a place where the pavement ends.  As we turn around to head north, we realize how much truth there is to this old saying:  “Life is a journey, not a destination.” (By Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Colin purchase’s his first mola!! From Kuna woman.

Discussing life?

Traffic because of protesting taxi cab drivers – yay!

Connecting the last stop to the unknown!

Last Stop!

Taxi …Yaviza Style!

Yaviza, End of the Road

More Bocas Del Toro

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Beach off the coast of Bocas Del Toro

Costa Rica…Pura Vida

The tea kettle starts to whistle and I begin pouring hot water over ground coffee.  The morning air is already warm but our camper is under the shade of this wonderful tree.  Its canopy stretches over us like a wide beach umbrella.  I stop mid pour when something drops on the camper roof.  And then again.  We poke our heads outside and look up to see the culprit.  Spider monkeys.  They are jumping on the stronger branches, breaking off the smaller ones and then tossing what they don’t like – the discarded sticks are landing on our camper.  They leap and swing through tree branches, catching themselves with one arm and then releasing to drop down with a synchronized movement – when the arm releases the tail picks up the slack.  They glide like olympic gymnasts – born to swing and flip using every limb, knowing when to grip, knowing when to let go.  Amazing the rest of us.  The howler monkeys may have the strongest call in the jungle, but the spider monkeys are pure entertainment.  “Forget everything I told you about my next life…” I tell Colin as we watch this show in the trees, “If I come back it better be as a spider monkey.”  He doesn’t seem surprised to hear me say this, nods and says something about how I am closer than I think.

We see monkeys.  Lots of monkeys.  We see big colorful bugs and toads that are the size of Colin’s foot that magically appear as soon as the sun goes down.  We see the spikey back of a crocodile that hangs in the river just beyond our camp spot.  We see birds, turkeys, chickens, lizards, a sloth in the tree and a baby sloth in a pen named Nola (who was left by her mother and rescued by Agi at Canas Castilla).  All of this…and we are only 7 miles south of the Nicaragua border.  In Nicaragua, we didn’t see anything but landscapes smoothed over by deforestation. We drove from the border to the finca, Canas Castilla, and got our first taste of why Costa Rica is a favorite of wildlife lovers.  And why Canas Castilla is a destination of overlanders.

Life in the wild

Agi and Guido purchased this spot about 18 years ago and turned their piece of Costa Rica into a place to farm, to hike, to gather under their wide porch overlooking the river and share dinner with other guests, to camp, to spend the night in cabanas, to sit, to relax, to drink homemade wine…to leave and to come back.  We stayed with them on our trip south and again on our return trip north.  There’s a table on their porch with laminated cards showing which birds and reptiles can be found in this part of the country along with other notes and hiking guides and two big books filled with comments from travelers.  From all over the world, returning again and again.

Crocodile Bridge

Beaches and Back Roads

Two peninsulas kick out from Costa Rica like little boots.  The Nicoya to the north and Osa to the south.  On Nicoya, we find back roads and mud roads that lead to secluded beaches lined with palm trees and waves smashing on black flat rocks that lie just beyond the shore.  The water looks too rough to swim in so we walk around the beach and notice tiny shells start to move.  Hundreds of them.  Colin leans down and picks up one to inspect.  Its little body shoots out to assess the situation and upon seeing us he immediately hides back in his shell. The only hermit crabs we have ever seen are in those small plastic cages, shells painted, sold by vendors in various beach towns back in the US.  They seem to like this lifestyle better.  Of course we can’t help ourselves and pick two to race.  I pick the dud who seems very active at first but once the race starts he decides to take a nap.  Colin’s pick heads straight for the finish line.

Nice beach…no fish

Storm rolling in

Coast of Osa Peninsula

After spending a few days on the sand and in the sand and getting a dusting of sand over everything, we move inland to see some of the parks.  Volcano Arenal is on the list of 10 most active volcanos in the world.  Colin really wants to see some hot lava and we heard that at night, if the sky is clear, you can see a fiery glow from the top.  There is a beautiful drive that curls its way around Lake Arenal and ends up near the volcano.  Where the pavement ends a gravel road picks up and then runs right into a river.  Hmmmm.  Not too sure about this long section under rapidly flowing water, Colin gets out to have a look.

First Crossing…

Somehow I get the job of walking in front of the truck through the river while he drives behind me.  At points the water reaches over the top of the tires and the bottom edge of my shorts, but we crawl out with no problems.  We notice a smaller vehicle, a Toyota Rav 4 is parked on the opposed side, with a couple standing by their opened doors pointing towards us, looking back at their vehicle and then discussing something.  We can’t hear their conversation but we can tell they are considering their next move. They climb back in the car and start to drive toward the water’s edge.  Colin gets out and tries to direct them away from a large rock as they get a little closer.  Their car is smaller and much lower to the ground but it continues to push through the river.  They make it and pull up next to us.  As their car doors open a rush of water dumps out from both sides.  We all start cracking up but they shrug and say, “it’s just a rental!”  We are happy to have high clearance especially when we end up crossing that river 2 more times…not all maps are as clear as the river.  We find a dispersed spot to camp on the southwestern edge of the lake, with a perfect view of the volcano.  As night takes over we watch from our camp chairs, looking for any signs of red glow from the top.  The only thing we see are blinking stars and the only sound we hear are the crickets and frogs.

Perfect spot to view volcano

We see this guy just after the river crossing near Arenal

Monteverde Cloud Forest

We find Monteverde at higher elevation and tucked neatly around a forest.  It feels like fall weather. Comfortable and cool.  A light misty rain comes through at some point during the day with the sun still shining against a blue sky.  From camp we can walk to Monteverde Coffee Company, a few grocery stores, gift shops and the Monteverde Cheese Factory.  This becomes a habit for two reasons. Cheese and ice cream that they make on site.  Cheese has been a topic of great discussion.  Colin learns that due to his absence from the wide selection of cheese in the U.S. he started having cravings not too long after we crossed into Mexico.  At one point we found a Costco while we were on the Baja, and I made the mistake of letting Colin go in while I waited in the truck with Sprite.  He comes back about an hour later with only three things:  two bottles of red wine and the largest block of extra sharp white cheddar I have ever seen.  He takes a few minutes to lay out the rules of HIS cheese so that I understand the seriousness of the sharp cheddar.  He is the only one who gets to hand out the rations.  Very small slivers, no large chunks.  In a world of queso blanco, though many brands, the taste is all the same – bland.  This is what happens when we leave behind the things we take for granted and never realized it.  For Colin it’s cheese.  So we walk to the Monteverde Cheese factory almost every day.  Two cones and a wedge of aged gouda.

Toucan near cloud forest

We have so much fun outside of the actual cloud forest national park we finally decide on our last day to walk up the road a mile and pay our entrance fee and see what this is all about.  At this point we are convinced that the cloud forest must be very similar to the forest where we have been camping and bird watching.  We are very wrong.

Cloud Forest

Monteverde Cloud Forest

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Cloud Forest…sun works its way through

Right after we hand over our money and get our tickets, it hits us.  Our first step into the park and we are instantly on another page of understanding.  A narrow path is laid out nicely but everything around the path, from the roots to the tips of the tallest trees, has been saved and untouched – evidence of what can happen when humans leave well enough alone.  Vines the size of small branches dangle from tree tops I can’t even see, ferns taller than me fan out onto the paved path forcing us to slide around them, green moss climbs over bark, dewy air, spongy soil, bright tropical flowers flash their colors amongst the dense green space.  Up above, the clouds move fast and the whole place seems like it was freshened by a spray, like in the produce aisle at the grocery store.  We get to a viewpoint and can see the tops of low mountains for what seems like miles and they are all covered with this dense forest.

Viewpoint from within cloud forest

We walk slowly and in silence, looking up and down and around us, taking in this new place for the first time.  A bird chirps and it’s the sound of a swing attached to a rusty chain, squeaking back and forth.  It’s a sound we have heard before but not coming from a bird.  Sunlight filters through the blades of plants and all of the tiny spaces not taken over by living breathing forest.  On our way out just past the exit sign the world looks different.  I stop a few times and look behind me, back to the path that turns dark, as if to convince myself again its a real place.

Monteverde Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Another shot of cloud forest | Monteverde

Monteverde Cloud Forest

To Save the Wildlife

I start becoming a bird nut at this point.  My dad would be proud to hear me say this.  My dad, with his stacks of bird books on his side table next to his cracked green leather chair.  His binoculars by the window looking out towards his many feeders.  I email him to say that the birds in Costa Rica are incredible.  He needs to put down his binoculars and get down here now.  I read a few facts in a travel book about the number of birds and other wildlife in this tiny jewel of a country.  Something like 894 species of birds are found here.  That is more than the US and Canada combined.  In a country the size of West Virginia it contains four percent of species estimated to exist on the planet (according to wikipedia).  But numbers on a page look very different when they show up in real life.  To see scarlet macaws flying in pairs with their long ruby red tail and a call that can’t be mistaken.  Toucans with their famous large beak.   Green parakeets fluttering in groups.  They are birds we see on cards and cereal boxes, kids coloring books, cartoons, sadly in cages and sometimes tied to a twig for sale on the side of the street.  To see them in the wild, in their real home, is to realize how important places like this are to our world.

This guy catches these beautiful birds and stands on the side of the road hoping to make a sale.

On the Osa Peninsual

How a country the size of West Virginia can pack so much wildlife into its borders makes anyone want to curse the person whose vision is a landscape of sleek new buildings, stacked tall and wide with views of everything its killing.  We see this happening with our own eyes at Manual Antonio National Park.  A tight two lane road leads the way to the park.  The path cuts tight turns around restaurants and towering hotels.  At points from the road, the ocean is visible.  Its waves spraying over bolders that sit just out from the shore.  We arrive in the off season yet busses, taxis and other cars are busy hauling everyone to the end of the road.  To the National Park.  They limit the number of visitors to 600 per day to give some relief to the animals who are already crowded, backed into a spec of jungle left behind for them after the development (about 1,664 acres).  Spider monkeys, endangered squirrel monkeys, 2 and 3 toed sloths, tree frogs, bats, birds and another 100 or so other creatures.  It’s an astounding list of animals and that’s why the road is jammed with people who want to see them.

This guy was just minding his own business…

Colin gets this picture along with his guide at Manual Antonio

We all get our glimpse, take our photos and then hustle back down the road to cool off in our nice comfy hotel rooms. (We are guilty of this as well – paying a visit, splurging on a nice hotel room, forgetting all about the animals and the jungle while standing in the most refreshing shower…AC on full blast.)  We post our pictures and go home to show our family and friends.  It gets stored in the memory bank.  We move on.  We don’t know or don’t care about the plans to build more hotels, better restaurants, accommodations that require cutting off just another acre or two from the jungle.  What’s another acre?  Development is killing the very thing we are all traveling (from all over the world) to see.  Colin and I think about this a lot as we drive away, the balance of nature and development.   What can each of us do in our own way to protect these special places?

On the Osa Peninsula

Surfer on the coast of Manual Antonio

Pura Vida

The first time I read these words they were sewn on to the rear end of a girl’s pink pants.   I see it again on t-shirts and stickers.  I start to notice Costa Ricans saying this to each other as a greeting when passing or to say good-bye.  A few times they say this to us.  But it means a lot more than something catchy to stitch on a pair of hot pink pants.  “Pure life.” As far as anyone of us knows for sure, this life is the only one we have.  Take it in, take it as it comes, but don’t take it for granted.  Be good to yourself, be good to the people around you, and the environment that surrounds all of us.  Some are doing better, but some are doing worse.  Remember to live life like it’s the only one you’ve got.

(More pictures below…)

More of that beautiful Cloud Forest

Meeting a few Bomberos – San Vito, Costa Rica

Bugs in the sunlight

Monteverde Cloud Forest…tons of hummingbirds

Grasshopper…before he jumps

Look who we found…Caribbean side of Costa Rica

Before logging the first mile in our trip book, we logged several hours on vehicle research.   Like meeting your soulmate, some travelers know from the minute they start planning what the vehicle will be and the name she will wear.  Others, like us, needed a few trial trips, a few break up stories before we found the right fit.   After 7 months tick by, we still perk up when we spot another Overlander in the grocery store parking lot, or pulling along side someone at camp, or waving as we pass going different directions on the same road.  The vehicles we have seen are as different as the people driving them. The vehicle.  It’s the first question right after you decide to hit the road.

We have enjoyed meeting so many Overlanders, hearing their stories and learning about their rigs. In response to several questions we receive about truck campers, we wanted to write a review about ours. After hauling it along some really tough roads, with hard rain, the beating sun, the ocean’s spray, daily use.  Our tough little camper is still in one piece, but there are things we would change or like improved.  This post is for anyone in the market, or in the early stages of planning, to the folks who reached out to us for advice; here is our unpaid, unsponsored opinion.

We went with the Four Wheel Camper because of its light weight construction, very strong welded aluminum frame, low profile and solid reputation as a quality camper.  We ended up buying a one owner 2008 Eagle Model instead of new.  This increased our travel budget (the budget always wins in the end!).  Our Eagle had only been used a few times, and looked basically new.  Our Tundra will accommodate 3 FWC models: The Hawk, Fleet and Eagle.  The Hawk being the largest and Eagle the smallest.  We decided an Eagle was the best fit for us as it sits flush with the truck bed rails. This allows us to drive tight trails – keeping the fender flares and mirrors the widest point on the vehicle means less chance of ripping the sides off.  The truck now has plenty of pin stripping but that just adds character. FWC Eagle is a perfect fit for us. The interior is just right for 2 adults (1 messy) and 1 small pup (who likes her space to be very comfy). Weight, of course we would love to be lighter, however, the Tundra easily hauls the Eagle up steep hills.

Storm rolling in (no leaks!) | Playa Lagarto, Costa Rica

The Nuts and Bolts:

Roof Rack We have the combo luggage boat rack–not very versatile and not what we would have ordered, but absolutely better than not having one at all.  We would suggest the Yakima Track System, because its adjustable, compatible with multiple boxes and other accessories. (Side Note:  We could not find a box that would fit the boat rack.  We had to get creative and do some DIY rigging).  Whether by design or not, the rack failed before the roof when I hit a branch.  Several hard rains later, still no leaks!

Low branch, high root

Solar  We love it so much we wish we had a larger panel or maybe a second one with the ability to be deployed remotely.  We have the 85 watt panel that was installed by FWC.  It does its job, but more is always good in this case. It would be nice to be able to remove the panel and place it in the sun while we camp in the shade-often the level spots seem to be in the shade.  The placement on the roof is something to consider, especially if you can’t move it.  When we carried a surfboard (before it took flight and slammed into the road) we had to take it off every time we set up camp – since it covered the solar panel.  Not a huge deal but it made us think – panels attached to the roof rack would reduce the number of holes drilled in the top (less chance of leaks), and you can move them.

Dual Auxiliary Batteries  The heart of our electric system, keeping the lights working and the beer cold.  We really wish we would have replaced them before crossing into Mexico since they are old and barely hold enough charge to make it through the night.  Not cool (literally) when you can’t run one of the fans on a hot, sticky night in Central America.  Learn from our mistake!

Interesting bridge in Chiapas, Mexico

Struts  After we loaded the Yakima box with all sorts of fun stuff, we couldn’t lift the top.  Thankfully we were able to make a stop at FWC in Woodland, CA.  They added struts to our camper and life to our backs. We feel they should come standard with any roof rack option or at the very least mounting hardware, so they can be added later.

Insulation  The frame is aluminum, a great conductor of cold – more insulation would be great.  When camping in cold climates we get frost/ice inside wherever aluminum frame pieces or metal fasteners are near the headliner. Also, not sure if there’s any under the flooring, but if so…it needs more.

Interior Trim We have had some warping of the interior trim pieces. We wish FWC would use something different. Maybe the same material used for the new lift panels. We would like to see all trim replaced with this material, or something similar.

We find some amazing sunsets | New Mexico

Fan-Tastic Vent Fan  It is great, get 2 if you can. We would love to have one over the bed. When using the stove and burning dinner it pulls all the smoke out!   Or blows in to bring you fresh air.

Vinyl Soft Sides and Window Systems  The material has been pretty durable and easy to keep clean. However, after 7 months of daily use it’s beginning to wear in some places.  In particular the rear corner on the passenger side. We have realized the lift panel, storage cabinet, and soft side are all showing signs of rubbing in this spot where they are make contact. On the kitchen or driver side there is none.  We think this is because the counter top sits slightly lower and there is no contact.  A slimmer cabinet on the passenger side might correct this problem.  The window system allows light and air to flow from both sides. Screens could be finer, small insects (no-see-ums) pass through without a problem.  We’ve had some rough nights in coastal areas.  We also wish there was a more breathable material that could be purchased if desired.  We would have paid more for this option. We do have the Arctic/Thermal pack which provides some extra insulation.

Cabinets & Storage  Improved latching system on new models is great. Our older hardware is starting to show a bit of surface rust. We think ALL interior hardware should be stainless, or corrosion resistant – even the hinges. Faux wood cover has held up really well, however, we would opt for Silver Spur type cabinets.  Under bed storage option on all models would be a dream!  This is an option on the flatbed but not on the other models.

Death Valley

Counter Top  The white laminate counter top has held up remarkably well after 7+ months of daily use. Even though ours is white, it continues to come clean, even after spilling red wine and drips of coffee.  A little bleach/water solution and it’s as good as new.

Sink  We don’t use it and may opt for more counter and storage space next time (or we may start using it and write a better review!).  If nothing else, we feel the stove top and sink should switch places on Eagle models.  It would be nice to start coffee while the bed is still extended (meaning Carrie gets up early and ready to start coffee but Colin & Sprite are still sleeping).

Stove Top  Great! Our propane regulator has become a bit finicky, but otherwise a great unit, easy to clean, and a perfect amount of space for any size pan.

Cheers! Playa Bluff in Bocas Del Toro, Panama

Refrigerator  We have an Engel 2-way version. Love it.  The fridge goes on our “things we could not live without” list. Wouldn’t think of using a 3-way or anything different. We run it 24/7 and never think about it.  Quiet and a surprising amount of interior space for its little size.

Propane Heater  The lowest setting was all we needed to stay comfy when it was 7 degrees out. Definitely used a lot of our battery juice but was worth it. More insulation in the camper overall, may make it more efficient. We have the Arctic/Thermal pack and that helps.  However, tons of cold air comes in from the large side window, and the floor stays cold. This leads me to windows…

Windows  Pretty sure it’s code,(safety exit) but the passenger side window is drafty. Ants have come in through it and we have not used it as a window once. Not once. if you opt for the rollover couch we would say delete it (if possible).  This window may be nice with the dinette or a shell model but our curtain stays closed and just collects dust. Front removable, and window on rear door have held up well.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Rollover Couch  We love it.  Comfy seating for 2 (and Sprite) and good storage underneath. Also provides the up and down option if sharing a bed is not (like the late night pull into the gas station moment when no one feels like making the bed…or if a fight breaks out and you just need your own bed for the night).  The rollover also allowed 1 person to nap while on a ferry for 18 hours (we took sleep-shifts).

Curtains, Cushion & Covers  Have held up incredibly well after 7 years of age and 7 + months of daily living by 2 adults (1 messy) and a small dog.  It would be nice if the curtains could be easily removed and machine washed.  (material tan fabric)

Floor Covering  We have always had a rug down, so the flooring is not totally exposed, but when the dirt finds its way in and the sand covers every square inch, the vinyl is easy to sweep out or wipe down.  Very durable.

Wall Covering (Villa Grey Snow)  Like the floor the wall covering is durable and easy to keep clean.

Jungle Vines (glad for low profile) | Panama

Exterior White Siding  Still tight and always a car wash away from looking “almost” new.

Exterior Hardware  Weather has started to take its toll on steps and fasteners, but overall still looks good. Very functional.

Exterior Compartments  We would like to see all exterior compartments access areas (behind fridge) lined in the same plastic as the propane storage area.  Exposed wood gets wet and does not hold up well.  Also, maybe screens on the back sides of vented doors to allow veneration, but still keep ants and spiders out. Ask us how we know…we got a case of the ants right before leaving Virginia (we think they found the camper while sitting in storage and then did what ants do – called in the troops and set up their own camp).

Exterior Lighting  We have the rear flood lights, the orange side and rear lighting. Very handy. Our only wish was possible wiring the spots for reverse lighting.

Awning  Get it!  We have the Fiamma 8′ Model and love it.  Easy to use and really adds to outdoor living space.  Light rain, hot sun – we’re covered!

Rear Wall Steps  Actually quite nice for accessing anything on the roof rack. We use these every time we set up or break down camp.

Camping at the firehouse | Panama

Anchor System  Our only “major” failure has been a carriage bolt sheering off after hours on a bad (terrible no good very bad day) road. It was an easy fix because it was under the rollover couch and not the kitchen.  We recommend bringing extras just in case (we now have about 10 sets).  Just a thought – not sure if a soft attachment point, such as a strap, might be better than rigid.

Turn Buckles & Access  Easy to use and access. They do need occasional tightening. Access panels could be something more durable, but work fine.

Door  We have the older version (square, the newer models have a rounded top), but it has held up well.  The door keeper wore out quickly.  Some sort of hooking mechanism may be better.

Screen Door  Get it!  We use ours every day!  Not sure if the latching mechanism has been improved on new models, but if not, it should be – flimsy for something used so often

Inverter (Xantrex Pro 1000)  We had Mainline Overland add one for us.  Totally worth it. We have given Sprite a full haircut while free camping on a beach in Baja, we have charged computers, plugged in extra fans….do it!

AT Overland Fuel/Jerry Can Carrier  Since an Aluminess swing away is over $3,000 this was a life saver. Thanks Mario (see info below). If we could, we would have added two.  Easy install at FWC in Woodland, but if you are in or near Prescott, AZ go by and see Mario, he’s awesome.

This is a well built, tough little camper.  Of course, if our money was sitting in tall stacks collecting dust along with all of our stuff in storage, we would buy a new FWC flatbed Silver Spur edition Fleet or Hawk model. Since that is not the case, we decided to go the used 2008 Eagle and we both agree: it has been comfortable, and easy to haul on the back of our Tundra.  The low profile has allowed us to go anywhere our truck will take us and after 15,000 miles to date and some of the worst roads we have ever seen, it is still in one piece.  As a matter of fact, it still looks and functions quiet well in one piece.  It’s perfect for a drive down the Panamerican Highway or out for a weekend trip to Yosemite.

Yosemite, NP

Side Note:  We believe the back bone of FWC is the great service provided by their independent dealers. We have enjoyed working with the following folks, and recommend you do the same if you’re in the market for a FWC, or just have a question about FWC products.

Denny Saunders at Four Wheel Campers of Jackson Hole, WY

Mario Donovan at AT Overland Equipment, Prescott, AZ

Main Line Overland in West Chester, PA

The End of the Road | Yaviza, Panama

The Road has Many Turns

I have struggled to find my words for this post.  I imagine using a typewriter, hearing the paper rip from the roll then crinkled up and tossed into the basket.  A pile of balled up papers scattered around the floor.  Instead I press the delete button until the page goes blank and start again.  Over the last month our experiences have gone from tap dancing on clouds to the losing wrestler – flat on the mat anxiously watching the opponent climb the top rope to make one final jump.  There are so many feelings and thoughts bouncing around that they spill out all at once and collide in a jumble.  I want to tell you about the trash, our anger over starving animals, the two sides to expats, the beautiful cultures, the landscapes, the people who have opened their hearts to us, the tourist vs the traveler, classism, racism, the roads, the towns, the food  – the good, the bad and the interesting.  I want to shrink you all down and put you in my pocket so that my words on this page will do these things justice.   From the time we left Guatemala (our last blog update over a month ago!), we crossed through El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and landed in Costa Rica in less than 2 weeks.  It was a big lesson in expectations, but also an open ended sentence.  What were we hoping to find?  What did we miss?  We spent only 5 days in El Salvador, 4 hours rushing through Honduras, 5 days in Nicaragua, 3 weeks in Costa Rica and are having a hard time saying goodbye to Panama.  Since I can’t write it all at once, out of the heap crawls one word that shows up along this trip and constantly in life –Expectations.

Expectations bubble up and drift into our minds like dreams at night.  It feels natural the way our minds form opinions and then jump forward to conclusions before we get the chance to actually have the experience.  By the time we cross into El Salvador we have to fight this urge.  We have to remind each other to just let the days happen.  To embrace every thing that comes at us every day.  Good and Bad.  Sounds so basic it’s silly, right?  By the time we get to Panama we are still reminding ourselves to do this silly basic thing.

So Much Beauty in Costa Rica – Yet, Only 1 Place Makes the Top 50

There was a spot in Costa Rica with a long wide beach, soft blue water, islands in the distance, wild horses appeared from the coastal forest.  The only place to camp was just behind a crooked fence with trash piles that blocked the bathrooms and a toilet with rat poop on the tank.  The owner lived between two cinder block walls with a tarp covering just the corner.  Broken appliances, a shattered toilet and old plastic bottles, rotten coconuts and other pieces of junk shared the space around their furniture and the block walls.  There was a strange line that divided paradise from a dump.  We were able to slide a filter around our vision to enjoy the beach, the breeze, the water, and the only another couple who camped next to us (we would cross paths again a few weeks later).  We set up camp right next to the fence with nothing but beach in front of us.  A few days later I got an email update from a travel blog (AFAR) with a list of the top 50 places to camp in the world.  The paradise dump was listed at #26…in the entire world.  Beauty, we learn again, is different for everyone.

The beautiful side of paradise | Costa Rica

Our Expectation:  We have this image in our head that Costa Rica is all about the environment, clean and green.  We traveled all over this country and it was more beautiful, packed with more wildlife than we could have imagined. This beach was the only one that fell short.  It was the trash and the drugs that left us shocked when we saw it was listed in the top 50 spots to camp in the world.

Lesson:  Don’t just read the lists!  There is definitely a reason why some places stay at the top of the “must see” places, but check out other options as well.  One of our favorite beaches in Costa Rica was down a muddy road next to a simple wide-board house.  Other than one family, the beach was ours.  (A lot more to come on Costa Rica!)

Samara Beach | Costa Rica

El Salvador, Nicaragua & Honduras

We hear a lot of chatter about El Salvador and Honduras.  From friends, from reviews and most importantly from our US State Department.  We read the travel warning alerts and felt a sense of “should we be doing this” but then proceeded with our guard up and on high alert.  Our opinions start to form before we even get to the border.

We get safely past customs and begin to follow a curvy route through the western hills of El Salvador.  Wiry shrubs line the street with dashes of colorful flowers draped over the brush. Soon we are on a tight dirt road that leads us around coffee plants, tall pine trees and higher into the hills.  We stop at a gate guarded by two men who are both armed and inquire about our visit.  According to a wonderful app, ioverlander, we can camp here.  The guards open the gate and wave us in.  The grounds are carefully landscaped.  A wide open grassy area is the centerpiece with one short peak as the backdrop.  Horses stomp around their stalls, there is a restaurant with a wide porch and tables set up on the opposite side and another flat area with tent platforms.  The entire place is tucked in around a border of pine trees sweeping the sky and coffee plants in neat tight rows like a fence.  This mountain air feels fresh and cool and we start to wonder where all the bad guys live.  The owner comes over and points out a few places where we can camp.  We are the only ones here.  I decide to hang with Sprite and read while Colin joins the owner on a tour complete with an armed security guy who sits in the back of the truck.  About 2 hours later I’m sprawled out in the camper and I hear Colin outside, “Hey, come check me out.”  He’s sitting on a horse with a guy holding the rains.  “This is Alfredo,” he says pointing to the man with a cowboy hat.  I’m cracking up at this sight because I didn’t expect Colin to be sitting on a horse (wearing flip flops).  As soon as he dismounts and the horse trots off with Alfredo, Colin sits down and fills me in on the grand tour.   The owner shows him the main house, the ranch and his extensive collection of saddles.  They talk a little about the town and the country.  He tells Colin that it’s safe here.  “Here” meaning this huge piece of property that wraps around us like a secure bubble.  A bubble that requires the owner to have a personal armed security guard with him at all times. More armed guards to watch the front gate who take turns roaming the property during the day and we see their flashlights at night.  There’s a part of us that wants to give this place a chance, we want to know El Salvador, but there is a bigger part that tugs for us to move on…and wins.  We spend two more nights in two different beach towns.  One is a mecca for surfers and feels again like a bubble.  The other is a small quiet fishing village. We watch a group of boys practice soccer with the coach calling out drills.  Two young girls walk along the line of debris brought up by the ocean’s tide. They sort through trash with sticks and one picks up a green plastic bottle while the other spears a dead blowfish, chucks it into the water and heads for home.  The streets are silent, the night moves along with the sound of the ocean’s waves.

Colin meets Alfredo | El Salvador

We take the southern route to the border towards Honduras.  Its rare to see a house with sturdy walls.  Most are built with corrugated steel nailed to branches.  Some use cardboard.  We feel as though we have missed something here, like reading the reviews of a book but never opening the cover.  We don’t feel safe, but nothing bad has happened.  Where is the line between giving a place a chance when in the background (even from locals) safety is an issue?

Our Expectations:  We hear about its beautiful beaches, but also the violence.  We joke about how in Guatemala we could count the number of people who were rude to us on one hand.  On that same hand in El Salvador, we could count the number of people who were friendly to us.  We didn’t feel welcome, we didn’t love any one place.  In the end, we drove out unharmed and nothing tugging at us to come back.

Church & Peak in El Salvador

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We met a biker in Costa Rica who started in France and has been riding for over 2 years with the goal of making it to Argentina.   When the topic of Nicaragua comes up he smiles.  He’s in love with her.  We tried to find the right words, skipped around the edges and hoped we didn’t offend him.  Our last night in the country we slept next to broken down school buses, surrounded by trash, the air heavy and still, hot, sweating, mad.  Earlier that day we arrived in Granada excited.  An old colonial town, bright buildings, high porches with terracotta tiles.  The center full of vendors looking up at huge yellow church plopped in the middle.  We read article after article that Granda was the next best place to visit.  We were in the middle of the “it” town and couldn’t wait for the sun to come up so we could bolt.  From conversations with locals to the guys at the firehouse – was the heat sucking the life out of everyone?  Located in the middle of town, the Granada fire station was easy to miss.  There was only one firetruck off to the side, one wheel missing, cracked windows.  Their turnout gear was tossed around like they didn’t care.  Colin tried to spark a conversation with the one guy hanging out front.  It was like hearing a grown up try to speak with a shy child.  For every one question he got a one word answer.  Finally, when the topic of the broken fire truck came up, the nut cracked a little wider.  They had one fire truck and did not know how to use it.  The fireman asked Colin if maybe he knew.  Colin felt sad for this guy, for this company and for the people in the city.  He tells me about DC going through budget cuts.  The fire department was left with equipment that needed repairs and gear that needed to be replaced.  Nothing was new, but everything was treated like it personally mattered – they fixed what they could.  Their pride was in their work.  Firetrucks were washed, turnout gear stored properly or on the apparatus, boots upright and ready.   What happened here?  Just the day before we were staying at Rancho Los Alps outside Leon.  The grounds felt like hill country in Texas.  A gravel road with big leafy trees leading the way.   It was peaceful and an easy place to spend a few days.  The owners walked over to check on us each night, handed us maps of the property and encouraged us to hike, to explore, to ask questions.  They were so excited to meet us and tell us about Nicaragua.  We sat on their porch and watched sunsets throw pink hues in the sky and enjoyed a cool breeze at night.  We were surprised to only spend 5 nights in the entire country.  Were our expectations so high that Nicaragua was destine to fail?

Our Expectations:  We heard that Nicaragua was the spot that Costa Rica was 30 years ago – wild, beautiful and largely untouched.  What we saw were dirty beaches and cleared forest.  We were pulled over by police and hassled more than in all the other countries combined.  However, we only saw a very small portion of the country.  We are hoping to give it another shot on the return trip.

Rancho outside Leon

Hello…From Rancho Los Alpes

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Los Alpes in Nicaragua

We Fall in Love with Panama

There is a peninsula in Panama that sticks out like an angel’s skirt.  We save articles and jot notes about the towns to visit because this is the spot to find Panamanian artisans.  We have to admit it – we love trinkets!  The cheap wooden Mexican animals, the Guatemalan blanket that’s heavy and provides no real warmth but is full of colorful patches and reminds us of that place, the coffee mugs we purchased in Baja, the tiny Navajo rug (the only size we could afford).  We don’t spend much on these little prizes but we love to learn about the local art and the artist.  We arrive on the peninsula and start looking around.  I have a list next to me with the names of the towns and what we can expect to find.  Pollera dresses are made on the coast, masks are made in Parita and the hats, oh the hats are awesome.  We turn off the main road and slow down towards Parita.  A white church sits off to the side.  Two guys stand on the sidewalk and chat.  They wear straw hats with dark rings and the brim flipped up.  Surrounding the square homes are painted in worn colors of yellow, blue and pink. Carved wooden transoms sit over wooden front doors.  Terracotta tile porches make shade for folks swinging in hammocks and the dogs flopped on their side sleeping.  A small tienda operates from one of the homes on the corner of the square.  We don’t see the stalls of trinkets and move on to the next town on my list.  The same scene, no stalls.  Further down the coast we find Pedasi and meet an Italian couple who sell pizza and will rent us a room for the low season price of $40.00.  We stay one night and return for another.  They make us lobster pasta and we talk late into the night about their lives in Italy, their newborn baby (12 days old) and finding Pedasi.  Pedasi has a little bit of everyone.  A Chilean family who makes crepes.  A woman from France who sells local art and knows the pieces like they were her own. We meet Bonnie in La Enea where they make Pollera dresses but we don’t see them anywhere.  Originally from Iowa, she came here as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 60s and then moved back to make La Enea her home.  We sit on her porch overlooking the ocean and talk about the artisans and where are they?  Bonnie laughs at this and says, “They’re all around.”  We follow her to a friend’s house and park across the street.  Around back a lady with dark short hair and brown eyes stands up when she hears Bonnie call her name.  She has strings of yarn around her neck and a few pieces of fabric on her lap.  She holds up one piece and smooths her hand over the embroidered red flowers that she’s working on and then runs into the house and comes back with more samples.  A shirt she is working on for her son, puffy sleeves for another Pollera scheduled for a fall celebration.  She makes a gesture that her eyes are getting old and now require glasses with so much work. The dresses take about a year to complete, require many hands and cost in the thousands. A green parrot sits on a wire along with sheets that are out to dry.  Chickens peck at the dirt.  An artist sits for hours stitching and embroidering a dress that continues to encourage their culture, their traditions.  She doesn’t have a stall and she is not selling these things on the street.

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Store in Pedasi

It was late in the day when we leave.  My map now tossed off to the side, I don’t care about my list.  Back on the main road that will take us off the peninsula towards CA 1, our windows are down and we drive in silence watching the flat dry land move past us.  I notice a dull pink house set back off the road with a few hats hung on a line by close pins.  I shout to Colin to turn around.  He has been looking for one of these Panamanian hats.  All the guys where them (even the President) with the brim flipped up towards the front, to the side or up from the back.  We find the family hanging out on the porch.  The brother is tossing a string to play with a new puppy.  The sister is sitting on a chair working and twisting a long rope that will soon become a hat.  Her husband comes out with a stack of more hats for Colin to try and talks about the process.  They chat for a while about family and travel and where we are heading next.   They give Colin a strong handshake and he walks away with a piece of Panamanian style.

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Selling Panamanian Hats!

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Making the Hats | Azuero Peninsula, Panama

There was no sign on the house or near the driveway.  They don’t need one.  The hats, the dresses, their music.  On the front porch, behind the house, sitting around family – this is their life.  We were the ones that had to go looking for them.  We had to put down our maps and open our eyes.  We had to ask questions and look behind the stalls from the street.  What we expect to find is not always what we end up looking for.

Our Expectations:  We planned for Panama to be a jumping off point to South America and never expected to spend much time here.  We love Panama.  Fascinating people, rich landscapes.  Very friendly.  More to come on this gem!

It is part of our make-up to have opinions, to form ideas based on what we hear and what we see.  Despite every instinct to follow, we decide to go and experience for ourselves.  How else will you know?

Church in Parita, Panama

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El Salvador Beach Camp

Drinking some coconut juice…not to sure

We have learned something about ourselves and the people in the U.S.  It happened after spending two months in Mexico, a couple weeks in Guatemala and traveling further into Central America.   It happened while watching every day life for every day people in the big towns and in the small villages in these countries.

No warning that the road is missing.

It happened while driving down a paved highway through the hard rain and getting passed by a motorcycle that was made for one but carried five; dad in the front holding the handlebars and squinting through the downpour, brother in the middle gripping a plastic container filled with chips, baby sister sandwiched between dad and her brother, and mom in the back with a baby slung over her arm holding everyone together like a bookend.  And of course, no helmets.

Room for one more?

It happened one day while driving on the highway through Mexico and passing a car with every seat occupied included the tight area between the seats.  Arms hanging out of the windows for extra space, a wheel that looked flat, and a baby tucked carefully on top of the dashboard.

It happened when we witnessed the famous “chicken buses” in Guatemala that are old U.S. school buses revived and revamped uniquely painted and decorated with flash.  Everything and everyone can ride on the bus – including animals, luggage, bikes, crates, stacks of wood, buckets of goods…and chickens.  When the seats are filled, people climb to the luggage rack on top and hold on tight.

A good time to organize the luggage and load…

 It happened on the worst roads in the western highlands of Guatemala when we followed trucks with added racks and people hanging from every bar.  Bouncing over pot holes and cracked pieces of pavement. Some chatting on cell phones.  Not a worry in the world.

Just to let you know…this one is going to be steep.

It happened while roaming the aisles at the super market to see unrefrigerated bins full of raw chicken.  You just grab a bag and take what you need.

Colin buys street honey. Sold in old wine bottles.

It happened while watching families clear fields.  Young kids whacking weeds with machetes while standing inches from one another.  If this was my family, the day would end with a field still full of weeds and someone on the way to the emergency room.

Hang on!

It really happened the day we saw another family on a scooter, but this time they were cruising through town over cobble stone streets while dad was zipping around other cars, trucks and pedestrians his daughter was squished in the middle tucked next to mom, who cradled a baby in her arms while breastfeeding.  Talk about multi-tasking!  And still, no helmets.

All this happened while we were carefully driving under the speed limit, strapped in our seat belts, wearing prescription eyeglasses with stashes of hand sanitizer placed all around the truck…when we realized Americans have gotten soft.  We have no stomach for danger.  We are too careful, too fearful, and too worried.  We are scared our kids will get hurt or bring home germs.  We are nervous about Ebola and watch the news to see where it strikes next.  We wonder about our place in the world and worry if we are smart enough, wealthy enough and strong enough.  We don’t want scratches on our cars or gray hairs on our heads or wrinkles around our eyes.  We are too busy, too stressed, too preoccupied.

We only see a sliver of their lives through the window of our truck.  But it’s enough to reflect back from the rearview mirror.  When did we become so consumed with fear?  Maybe a little dirt, danger and adventure is good for the soul…

Vines hang like thick ropes tangled and twisted over branches and around the trunks of almost every tree. The air is sticky and warm.  The sun can’t seem to break through this canopy so every step I take is in the shade of this jungle.  I stop when the sound of howler monkeys overpowers the bugs and birds and humans. Everyone stops.  It sounds like a cry from a monster coming from the deepest darkest part of the jungle…in reality, it’s just a small monkey.  A furry black monkey wrapping its tail around a sturdy branch and gently swinging to the next – a movement that flows with effortless ease and I wonder where in that little body that strong howl comes from.  They have earned their name.

Temple V | Tikal

I keep walking past the monkeys and vines, past the Ceiba trees, which are sacred symbols to the Mayan people.  The trunks work deep into the ground and the branches reach out like long arms that seem to touch the spiritual world above.  As a symbol of life, it connects the world from below to the one above. Further in, I see what looks like a stone wall covered in vines and soft green moss.  There are trees growing from the side wall of this temple that was built sometime around 200 AD.  It has barely been touched – the earth taking it back ever so slowly.  Climbing now I start to hear voices coming from the main central plaza.  An area in the middle of this Mayan town, the main attraction, the most excavated temples have brought visitors from all over.  They set up picnics and sit in groups under trees and admire the stone temples that rise up by steep steps.  Each pyramid topped off with a simple piece that wears like a hat.  I stare at the stone walls that have turned black from time and wander carefully through narrow paths that lead from one temple to the next.

Temple at Main Plaza | Tikal

I check my watch and think about Colin, who is sitting back at the campground (which is now more like a parking lot with so many visitors) inside the camper hanging out with Sprite.  Since dogs are absolutely, no exceptions, don’t even think about it, not allowed in the park (or even next to the entrance gate which is about 11 miles to the actual ruins) we decided to bring along a friend of ours instead of the dog.  So Sprite came along.  Sprite is not much for hot days and walking through ruins so she decided to hang back in the camper, with the fan on, with treats, and take naps while Colin and I took turns exploring.  Sprite is one of those high maintenance friends who is sometimes good to travel with and sometimes not.  So I checked my watch and couldn’t believe 2 hours had already come and gone.  We decided to give ourselves about 2-3 hours each, but you could spend days here.

Highlands in Guatemala

Over the next few days we piece together a plan that is a direct result from “throwing caution to the wind.”  When we left Virginia and took off on this journey we had one goal – travel.  We had a big ol’dream that our budget would allow us to get down to South America, but we were very firm on the fact that as we progressed south, if one person wasn’t loving it (wanted to change directions or plans) we would sit down and hash it out (no coin toss or bloody knuckles, but talking together about the pros and cons).  We talked a lot.  A few times it was while sitting under and on top of thick snow when we were in the US.  Another conversation was about crossing into Mexico and driving through Tijuana.  Then learning about the Zapatistas when we were in Chiapas and trying to figure out a route that would not land us in the middle of their territory with masks hiding their faces while they blocked the roads and took travelers money.  The next conversation came right before crossing into Guatemala – will our budget allow us to cross into South America?  The big expense here is shipping across the Darien Gap and then figuring out what to do when we found ourselves out of road at the very tip of Argenina.  I imagine we look at each other and say, “Were you the one in charge of saving enough money for us to get home?”  And then there’s that question…”Where is home?”

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

With so many questions and no easy answers we decided to book our ticket on the Ferry Xpress from Panama to Colombia as soon as we heard that the last possible boat is leaving on the 20th of April and never taking this route again.  We did this online while in Mexico.  At that time it would give us three weeks to get through Central America to board the boat.  Sometimes when you throw caution to the wind, the wind changes direction.  A few days into Guatemala, we realized that due to an unexpected financial emergency (can we really say “unexpected” when we planned to pay taxes, we just didn’t plan to pay 5 times that amount!) it was just not smart, with our budget, to get on the boat.  South America would have to be another trip.  Over another talk through hopes and dreams, and pros and cons, we decided to enjoy Central America, head back to the states, spend a few months exploring the places we have been dying to go, and perhaps figure out where we will land.  The truth is, there will always be another place, a better place, a more distant place, but sometimes the place you are in is where you need to be.  At least for the moment you are there.

Western Highlands | Guatemala

We slow down and take the road through the western highlands of Guatemala.  The landscape is vibrant green, packed with volcanos and mountains that fall from the sky into valleys with heavy thick clouds hovering just above their summits.  Farmland thrives in the rich soil and we see perfect rows of plants springing up all along the foothills and among terraced fields.  We drive through tiny villages where a single road connects each town and a constant line of people walking back and forth carrying a bundle of something: firewood in a stack balanced on top of the head, or big blue bowls of tortilla dough wrapped in a blanket, or loads of fruit or vegetables slung over the back.  Old and young, everyone carries something.  They are dressed in traditional clothing that Colin and I can’t get enough of.  Women wear long flat skirts to just above the ankle with colorful patterns from stripes filled with designs to a mix of other prints, a blouse with lively colors of patches with intricate shapes tucked into a belt with hand stitched flowers and birds dancing around their waist.   Their dark hair is perfectly placed and sometimes wrapped into a bright string that flows around the braid and ties everything on top like a bun.  The men wear colorful patterns as well, but white flowy pants with pink and green dashes leading to thicker lines of color around the bottom cuff and a belt that looks almost like a shawl but wraps around the waist.  A tweed colored bag drapes over the shoulder and usually a machete hangs from a strap tucked beneath the belt. Most men wear long plain pants, a dress button shirt, a cowboy hat, bag and machete, but we love to see the guys wearing the traditional clothes.

Women in their traditional colorful clothes

Taking in the view

Taking in the view

Every town we pass through is surrounded by beautiful landscapes that look nourished by rain and mountains dipping and climbing through the clouds.  The homes are nothing more than walls made of wooden branches nailed together with a rusty metal roof.  Others are mud walls and no roofs at all.  These modest homes sit crooked on dirt patches and pieced together by the materials found on the land.   It amazes us to see people walking out of mud huts in outfits that look like they were finished that morning. Fresh, bold colors, neatly ironed and ready for their first wear – like being ready for the the first day of school.  They sell fruits stacked in bowls sitting by the road side on small stools.  There are fires burning trash and fires heating grills and flat skillets for cooking.  We climb along this narrow dirt road, over sharp rocks with our wheels slipping and the truck clicking and cranking, and discuss that these are the worst roads we’ve seen yet, but how can we be upset as every single person we pass waves and smiles.  They shout “hello” and “hola” and little kids run up to get a closer look while a few yell “Gringo!”  It’s a steep passage way cut along mountain sides with a view that glides over clouds and the tops of green peaks for miles.

Watching an entertainer in the park

Taking a snack break!

Look at those pants!

We camp at a coffee farm in Coban, and next to volcanos in Lake Atitlan, and in a dusty parking lot that closes us in by a rusty fence in San Pedro.  We splurge for a hotel in Antigua and take a few days strolling the cobble stone streets, admiring the churches that have damage still showing from several earthquakes back in the late 1700s.  Pieces of the church crashed down into the courtyard and left where they fell.  We meet new travelers and talk to ex-pats who have found a home in one of the villages around Lake Atitlan.  We jump on with a tour group and climb Pacaya Volcano with an Australian couple followed by a horse that was there to take our money if we decided our legs wouldn’t take us any further (no one took the horse!)  We fall in love with Guatemala and can’t figure out why more people don’t talk about this country.  Everyone waves or whistles or honks.  We spend 17 days.  On our final night in Guatemala we are already thinking about coming back.

Beautiful Antigua

Beautiful Antigua

Roads are steep!

Not too sure about this bridge

Not too sure about this bridge

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

Church in Antigua

Church in Antigua

Stuck in the lot camping

Stuck in the lot camping

Hiking Pacaya Volcano

Uno más de México

There’s an orchestra playing just beyond my window.  The sounds become more intense as the conductor rises in this early morning hour.  A single rooster crows,  a few black birds take on the sound of a referee with a whistle, neighborhood dogs are barking to each other, goats are rustling in the grass and add their call to the mix and there’s something out there making a high pitch zippy whistle.  Sprite isn’t sure where she fits into all of this, so instead of adding her voice she presses her nose to the screen from the camper window and listens.  The air is already steamy in this southern coastal part of Mexico and since the musicians are just getting started, there’s no reason to jump out of bed just yet.

The Life of Memories

By the time we find Conception Bamba and Barra de la Cruz on the coast in the state of Oaxaca, we have been in Mexico nearly two months.  We have seen so many towns and met so many people, I have to take notes to remember it all.  But some moments dig deeper in my memory and so often it is not the most amazing or the most incredible that I remember; it’s a smell, or the mood, or the sense of a place and a feeling unlocks itself and wraps around the moment.  And from that time on it will replay in the most unexpected instant.

Conception Bamba

Oaxaca City

Oaxaca City

Other moments are too bold to need triggering because they simply stand alone.  Unfortunately bad moments shout louder and burn deeper.  You can only hope that one day they are funny stories or hard lessons that needed to be learned.  I have a funny story.  It all started as a perfectly fine day.  I was feeling good, energized and really enjoying the place we were camping.  We were a little short on groceries so during breakfast we pulled everything out of our pantry and fridge to see what we could piece together. Some cereal and the last scoop of coffee for breakfast, a can of tuna smashed with mayo on bread for lunch and then dinner got away from us.  I had an apple with peanut butter and Colin ate another sandwich leftover from lunch.  Of all the food we have consumed during this trip; meat and unknowns from market vendors, fish, cheese, tortillas and items left open to the elements (meaning flies), we have not been sick.  I haven’t eaten meat for the last 15 years and my stomach has been ironclad.  The last thing I remember consuming that Colin didn’t was an apple, the forbidden apple.  Looking back, it might not have had a thorough cleaning.  Right before bed I heard a grumble in my stomach.  A churning that did not feel right.  I decided to go to sleep anyway hoping it would pass.  At about 3 a.m. a serious cramp shot pain through my dreams and I woke up with a chill.  I needed a moment to comprehend what was going on.  I took a deep breath and realized I must head to the bathroom and fast.  Unzipping my sleeping bag and sliding down from our bed sent another sharp pain.  I hustled to the camper door and fumbled to twist the lock and release the handle, but the moment the fresh air hit my face I realized I would not make it to the bathroom, which was across a grassy field in the main building.  And despite my best efforts, I couldn’t even make it to the grass.  At 34 years old, I pooped in my pants.  Colin springs out of bed and comes outside to ask if I’m alright and then realizes the situation.  I don’t need to add the rest of the details, but I will say that it was a long night and the next morning when I opened my eyes and still felt a little sick, Colin turned over to me and asked in the sweetest & most loving tone, “How are you feeling, Squirt?”  He then goes on to tell me that of all the times he has ridden the ambulance at work (which was a part of the job he absolutely loved) and all the sick calls he has run that I was not the stinkiest compared to them…but I was close.  I guess I can now die happy.

Rediscovering Oaxaca City

As open as we are to discovering new places and sending our route in all directions, there was one city in Mexico that we really wanted to visit again.  Oaxaca City in 2008, was our first experience with Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead.  A Mexican tradition of celebrating the life and love of family and friends who have passed away.  While so many fear death, in Mexico it’s a time to celebrate life.  Colorful life – the town was filled with bright orange and yellow marigolds and shiny streaks of glitter sprinkled over sand sculptures and tombstones.  Huge shrines built in the city center with photographs, candles, fresh flowers and love notes.  They left a collection of all the things the person loved in this world – candy, pastries, Mezcal, cigars and a few shrines had pictures of naked ladies.  As much as we enjoyed that festive time we were looking forward to seeing the city in a different light.

Colorful Strip in Oaxaca City

It is always interesting going back to a place with specific memories in mind.  You either love it more, like it less or can’t believe it is the same place.  We arrived in the middle of protesting and blocked off streets.    Protester’s tents, tarps and handmade signs were filling the spaces between food vendors and artisan stands.  We barely recognized the zocalo from years before.  At first glance it seemed chaotic and a slight hint of disappointed sprang up as we tried to find our way to the hotel, around one-way streets and honking horns.  The Hotel Trebol happened to be one block from the main square and 3 blocks to secure parking (sometimes we make very smart choices!).  With our vehicle safe and our hotel room in the middle of things we set off on foot to see what the protesting was all about and rediscover the city.

Colin can’t resist the rugs…he buys 3

The city has changed.  The vibe is burning with life and opportunity.  The protesting was about rights and voices being heard.  The Indigenous people wanted what everyone wants; access to water, to food,  to schools, to provide for their families, to equal rights.  It was a peaceful protest and it seemed that the town was behind their cause.  Outside of the protesting and behind gated doors is where the real life plays out. Being in the center of so many different cultures the energy is unlike every other Mexican town we have visited.  Art is everywhere and delivered in several forms.  Murals danced along brick walls bringing color to alleyways.  Young graphic artists gathered in groups in small shops with their work displayed on white walls.  The historic food markets were packed just like we remember offering all the traditional Oaxacan goodies; dried grasshoppers, mole sauce, Mezcal and rich chocolate.  Vendors selling rugs, black pottery, painted skulls, and clothes.  Restaurants new and old, coffee shops, massive churches with tiled domes taking up entire city blocks.  Parks with benches, fountains and thin trees with purple blooms and full of people – school kids in uniform flirting, couples silent to each other while reading books, older folks selling baskets and treats.  There were events showcasing new artists, signs plastered to windows and doorways announcing progressive thinking, t-shirts with political statements…a push to create, be creative and demand change.  The city has changed while holding onto important traditions that remain the same.  We thought at one point we could spend a month here.

Oaxaca City

City Center in Oaxaca City

A mother & daughter needing to complete a homework assignment...speak English.

A mother & daughter needing to complete a homework assignment…practice English.

That was until a storm of miscommunication rolled in.  We thought we reserved our room for another couple of days so we could get an oil change, check on a gas leak and then stroll through more of the town. But that changed when the hotel reported a full house and we didn’t have a reservation, the Toyota dealer said we didn’t have an appointment there either.  The day continued in this fashion.  It ended with our backs turned to each other in complete frustration. Some days need to just hurry up and end.  We were both looking at our watches, sulking in bad moods and waiting for a new sun to start a new day.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

I just love this lady.  She made a basket I purchased. I took this picture and gave her a copy.

I just love this lady. She made a basket I purchased. I took this picture and gave her a copy.

Chup

Chapulines…Grasshoppers anyone?

Hitting the Reset Button

After the hustle of moving fast to Oaxaca, we took a few days to slow down.  We needed to stop, to sit, to stare, to do nothing.  And we found the perfect space for that to happen.

Hierve el Agua | outside Oaxaca City

Hierve el Agua

Hierve el Agua

Then we found the coast near Salina Cruz, which was tropical with sandy dunes running to the ocean’s shore, and ran through small dusty towns with friendly people.  We found Conception Bamba and the musical scene from the beginning of this post.  An iguana crosses the street and birds with neon blue backs and yellow tummies zip around camp.  Palm trees surround the roads and beaches, banana trees lace around homes and yards.  The owner of Cocoleoco, a surf camp in Conception Bamba, lets us in on a little town custom.  He tells us to listen for an announcement coming from town over a megaphone that will fill the air around 6 p.m. and announce who is cooking dinner and what’s on the menu.  Every night it’s the same procedure but a different house and a different menu.  Sure enough we heard the call and Leo explains what it says.  “Go now,” he adds.  “Ask anyone walking around, “Donde esta la cena?” and they will show you.  We spot an older man walking along the street and we ask.  He waves us over to follow him since that’s where he was headed.  On a side road off the pavement a mud sided house sits with a thatched roof.  Two younger girls with straight dark hair, bangs cut across their eye brows, deep brown eyes and look like sisters come out to ask us what we want.  Through the archway into the house a kitchen is set up. A dirt floor with chickens poking their necks out, a grill set over hot coals with tortillas rising in the heat.  Right next door was another house the same size and construction.  A boy of maybe 12 with dark short hair and a soccer jersey comes out with a plastic table and sets it right in front of us, he goes back behind the house and brings out two small chairs and then screws in a bulb attached to a wire hanging just above our heads.  More kids come out of the house to inspect us.  A girl around 2 with pink clips holding her hair back just stares in our direction.  A puppy barks at Sprite and then a cat purrs from the back corner shaking its tail as if to send a tease.  Another boy, a little older than the rest, with spiked hair and a soccer jersey, comes out and is very curious about us.  We manage to have a conversation about where we’re from, what we think about his town, mucho gusto, how he doesn’t like American football but loves soccer.  He says goodbye because a night game is getting ready to start with the other boys in town.  The girl who asked us earlier what we wanted comes out with a plastic bag loaded with warm plates of food.  We hand over $70 pesos and can’t believe our luck.  Back at Cocoleoco’s place we light a citronella candle (the mosquitos are thick) and eat tacos rolled tight around beef and caramelized onions, empanadas with a hot sauce and filling that we have no idea of the ingredients, and a sort of  quesadilla with cheese, avocado, peppers and a mix of something else that we, again are not sure what’s in it, but its soooo good we don’t care.  It’s one of those moments that will replay again for the rest of my life.

Cocoleoco | Conception Bamba

Cocoleoco | Conception Bamba

Little restaurant on the beach | Conception Bamba

Hey there!

Hey there!

Stops Along the Way

Heading in the direction of Guatemala takes us through the most southern state of Mexico, Chiapas.  We have heard of a neat spot that sits on a farm between low mountains and offers a few places to camp, but camping is not their mission.  At Hogar Infantil the mission is their kids.  A group of children from 3 to early 20s have found a lot more here than a place to get relief from the streets, from troubled homes, or lost parents.  They have found a new family and a permanent home.  As we pull up to find out about camping we are surrounded by smiling and curious faces.  “Where are you from?” someone asks in English.  “What kind of dog is that?”  “Your car is very dirty.”  They are peeking in the truck windows, trying to stick their hands in the void space between the camper and the bed of the truck, “Is this where your dog sleeps?”  By the time we drive across the yard to park the truck and set up camp, Colin has already been invited to join some of the boys for soccer the next day.  “I better carb up,” he says as we fix pasta. “I’ve got to show these kids what’s up.”  We go to bed with the sound of the kids still playing outside under dim lights.  The next morning we pull out our slack line (the box still sealed from the date is was purchased a few years back…taking up space and waiting for an excuse to come out).  The day was here.  The boys are more curious than the girls.  They see the box and the picture of a world class slack liner flying through the air and in the next picture landing on a line that is like a tight rope only a slightly wider.  We find two sturdy trees and loop the line around the trunks about 18 inches from the ground.  The boys are playfully pushing each other to win a chance to go first.  What looks easy turns out to be very difficult.  Each person walks only a few steps before falling off.  They fight the urge of losing their balance and try to twist and stick an arm out or a leg but fall instead.  Everyone is laughing and wanting to try again.  A younger boy with a torn blue shirt and shoe laces dangling looks determined as he rises from the ground, grabs ahold of the tree and then releases his hands to walk the line.  He balances for a few steps and then starts to fall, instead of giving up he kicks his leg out which sends him way off balance.  He slips, bounces off the line and it flips him over to the ground.  As he stands up to receive all the giggles, a new idea forms from his try.  They decide to jump and propel themselves off the line into the air.  Later we see three of the youngest boys balancing on the line while using a broom handle on the ground to steady themselves – they walk the entire distance of the line this way.  Next is volleyball and Colin is over playing soccer.  The kids take breaks to watch movies, eat lunch and do their chores.  They have to take care of the grounds, the sheep, goats and chickens.  They also take care of each other.  We see several of the older boys watching out for the younger ones.  The girls stay closer together whispering to each other and finally coming over to say hello.  They practice their English and we practice Spanish.  We can’t help notice how happy everyone seems.  They have found a family here – what was broken starts to heal around the kids and the adults who continue to support them in all the ways that need supporting.  When we leave the woman in charge tells us that the door is always open, to come back and visit.  Hogar Infantil runs on donations alone and encourage volunteers and even campers to come and visit.  If you have any interest or looking for a place to check out; http://www.hogarinfantil.org/ The adults are warm and welcoming and the kids are just awesome.

More pictures from our trip across Mexico…

Pyramids in Teotihuacan

Celebration Flags

Courtyard view from a gallery in Oaxaca City

Volcano Rumbling…Sprite is not so sure about this one!

Hiking at Hierve el Agua

Hiking at Hierve el Agua

Goats!

Goats!

Volleyball at Hogar Infantil

Volleyball at Hogar Infantil

Making Mezcal

Making Mezcal

Curious guy around surf camp | Cocoleoco

Curious guy around surf camp | Cocoleoco

Frijoles están saltando

This is the only phrase I can remember from a few months of Rosetta Stone…the Spanish version.  I know that I retained a few more phrases, but hearing the words come out of a real Spanish speaking mouth sounds nothing like the slow-poke voice on Rosetta Stone.   There was another attempt with a sweet lady who worked with my sister.  She was from Columbia and eager to teach someone, anyone, who was willing to learn.  For every hour she spent at our house, we spent about 10 minutes actually studying Spanish.  The rest of the time we talked about traveling, all the places she loved in Columbia, and all the food she loved to cook.  We really liked her, enjoyed our Saturday meetings and to this day we use her witty lines…in English of course.   Colin, on the other hand, should not even be in my Spanish class.  I’m over here working on me llamo Carrie and he’s jumping into conversations – broken but making some sense.  All of this is going through my mind as I sit at the KOA camp in San Diego the night before crossing into Mexico.  I’m quietly cursing myself for not learning Spanish and wondering how far I’m going to get on beans that are jumping.

Crossing into the Unknown

We have to admit that we were a little scared to cross into Mexico.  Have you peeked across the fence into Tijuana lately?  Warm and fuzzy is not the feeling you get.  Cinder block houses covered with graffiti.  Long pieces of rebar protruding from the top of almost every building as if awaiting another level.  Brown dust kicking up from the street wears on everything it can touch.  Broken signs, broken streets, broken windows, broken.  As soon as we enter, we leave.  With a successful border crossing (well actually, it was a few minutes of confussion, turning around, a little reverse action, a few questions; “What does that sign say?” “Should we follow that guy? But then we found the correct building, the correct bank, and the correct line into customs where an angry looking officer gave our water cans a sniff and then we were off).   So, with a fairly successful border crossing we saw Tijuana, noticed the state of things and kept our eyes focused ahead.

We were on our way to San Quintin and hoping to find Don Eddies to camp and find our new overland friends who we met a few days before at the KOA – Janice and Gregor from Alberta, Canada are taking 18 months and heading to Argentina. (Live.Travel.Play)  I received an email the day before we crossed the border from Janice, who gave us step-by-step instructions on how things went for them and where they were staying.  It was nice (very nice) to follow in their footsteps.  Don Eddies was easy to find – a huge billboard on the side of the road read, DON EDDIES (with an arrow) which was a relief because even though I had the Google directions and the name of the street, the street sign was no where to be seen.  It didn’t help that the GPS was showing the car (on the screen) going off the road a few miles back and recalculating before I turned it off.  We found camp and had dinner at the restaurant near by with Janice & Gregor.  It felt like a good successful first day in a land that felt very unfamiliar.

Even Sprite found some new friends.  One larger dog who warmed right up to her, but the little brown Chihuahua was not having it – sneaking over to our camp to get Sprite excited and then running away.  The morning we left, she left us a small gift on our mat.

First night in Mexico with Janice & Gregor (Janice is taking the picture).

Finding Our Way

When anyone asks us, we have no plan.  We are heading south.  We rarely know what destinations are connecting us from this point to that one.  We are rolling slow and taking this as it comes.  Which has been a wonderful plan in some instances and in others we end up on a terrible road looking to blame someone, and find that Sprite is at the end of our pointing finger.  It’s alright she owes us.

We packed up and left San Quintin heading towards the Gulf of California.  The road was paved, but dotted with pot holes and drivers seemed to take the speed limits and passing rules as suggestions only.  One driver passed us on the right side, narrow shoulder, going about 50 mph.  Stop signs might as well said, “Feel free to roll through or not slow down at all, it’s up to you!”

The easiest route heading in the direction of Bahia de Los Angeles we took.  Towns were spreading apart and the landscape was changing fast.  Huge saguaro cacti with their fork-like arms were everywhere.  The flat land started to rise and change to mountains.  Just as we turned east onto Mex 12 the colors really started to pop.  Purple ground cover, bright yellow buds on the tips of green plans, and a variety of cactus.  Just as we rose up over a hill the water was in sight with several islands that seemed to be floating.  We found a few camping options, but they were packed with motorhomes blocking the view.  Further down the road and we got lucky to find Archeords – an Eco camp right on the water and that’s where we stopped.

Bahia de Los Angeles

Rainbow over Bahia de Los Angeles

From our campsite at Bahia de Los Angeles

Nice spot on the beach

Friendly Giants

Gray whales take off from the icy waters of Alaska and head south to the warmer lagoons near the Baja. They make this great journey to have their babies and hang around until the little ones are strong enough to swim back.  There was a time that the gray whales were feared by fisherman.  They would swim towards the fisherman’s boats and in returned get a very unwelcome response.  The fisherman would yell and bang whatever they could find to scare them off.  But there was one fisherman, Pachico, who was more curious than the rest.  He took his boat out into the sea and sat, waiting quietly and patiently, and soon the pull of the boat rocked from something swimming up close.  It was a gray whale who perched its head above the surface.  Pachico reached out and for the first time connected with a “friendly whale”.  Since that time Pachico and his family wanted others to experience these friendly giants, which led to the creation of their eco camp with guided tours that go out into the lagoon to do as he discovered –  sit and wait and the whales will come.

I learned this story from Sabrina, who is married to Pachico’s son, Rana.  Rana and Sabrina now run the tours and camp.  They like to wait until the mothers have time to come into the lagoon and be with their babies before the tours start.  Even though we are there too early, we like their approach and since they were the first to find the friendly whales we listen.

During our time discovering the Baja with so many lagoons full of whales we got to see them putting on quite a show (just from the shore).  Leaping up into the air and slamming down on their sides while the water explodes around them. The fins came out, the tails rolled up and over, the misty shots of water from their blow holes were a constant sight.  All day they were playing.  Hundreds of friendly whales excited to show off and teach their new babies how to dance.

Looking for shells

El Camino es Malo

The day before we left Pachico’s, Sabrina draws me a map (the collection of our map drawings is getting quiet large!) And tells me in a dreamy tone her favorite places in all of Baja.  San Juanico is towards the top of that list and we must go.  Especially if we like to surf, it is one of the top surfing spots and known for the longest rides.  She is so excited while describing this place that I’m paying close attention and must have missed her telling me about the road conditions.  The day we leave, we talk to a local to confirm we are on the right route.  “Tres horas, el camino is muy malo!”  We don’t realize when we thank her and wave that when a local says the roads are bad that means they are BAD.  We go over deep sand and salt flats that buried a box truck up to its axles.  We go over river rocks at a crawl and washboard that still makes our teeth hurt.  We drive 65 miles and it takes us 5 1/2 hours.  By the time we pull up to San Juanico and see the first slice of pavement since the morning, we want to just stop and sit on the pavement – something flat that will not shake our bones right out of their joints.  Did you say Baja 1000? Take the road going south from San Ignacio!  Sometimes the wheels need to stop turning for a few days.  We stay parked for a week.

Bahia de los Angeles

Learning to Ride

San Juanico softens us after the jolt-a-thon.  We relax on a bluff right above the Pacific, which curls around two rocky points into an inlet on a long beautiful sandy beach.   We meet surfers and learn about this serious surf spot.  When the swell comes in this place has been known to attract some of the top surfers in the world.  But before we can really appreciate the long smooth waves, we need to find a surfboard.  Nico has a shop in town and sells us a used board.  He tells Colin to come back the next afternoon to pick up some lobster since that’s what he does during the day.  We try to surf and instead get in everyone’s way. We meet Larry who gives us the scoop, a surfboard to borrow and some tips.  We take the tips and the surfboard and find our first waves.  They are small, but fun and I stand up to take my first ride.  We spend our Anniversary (8 years!) catching baby waves that the better surfers don’t want…we are on the bunny hill around black diamond slopes and loving every minute.

Scorpion Bay | San Juanico

The water is not just busy with surfers, but pangas making their way to the shrimp boats anchored off shore and back to the beach.  We find the fish camp and Colin jumps out of the truck saying, “Lets see how this goes.”   I see him talking with a guy and they are waving hands and pointing and nodding their heads in agreement and understanding.   The guy starts drawing pictures in the sand and it seems, from where I sit, they have something worked out.  Colin gets in the truck and says, “I have no idea what that guy was saying.”  He must have communicated something right because just then a truck pulls around with the goods in a cooler.  $100 pesos for 1 kilo of shrimp.  We don’t have change and they take that to mean we want more.  A small white trash bag is filled to capacity.  Colin stands there holding this bag that will not even fit into our fridge.  We peel and cook shrimp that night, and the next night and the next night.

Pangas at Fish Camp

Cabo Pulmo

East Cape of the Baja

Todos Santos

Morning in Punta Conejo

Oh Snap!

It was bound to happen.  Our initial surprise that we didn’t bust anything on the road that rattled us to San Juanico was now going to prove us wrong.  We were almost to Cabo Pulma following the soft waves to our east, the mountains to our west, and bumping along another washboard stretch, when we heard a new noise coming from the back. Pulling over to inspect, we discovered one of the attachment point hooks is laying in the bed of the truck.   Then it gets worse, the bolt from the camper frame had completely snapped. This meant one thing; we were absolutely stuck if this could not be fixed.  The next mile we barely rolled at 5 mph.  Only three attachment points to this load was not a good thing.  But we couldn’t completely assess how bad this was until deciding how the attachment point was bolted into the frame.  We had a very bad feeling that the trip was getting ready to take a turn for the worst.

At low speed we made it to Cabo Pulmo and found an abandoned RV park.  The small town is a haven for anyone looking to explore the reef and underwater life.  Scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking or just swimming off the shore.  We gave ourselves a minute to appreciate this tiny beach town over fish tacos and margaritas, but our minds were on the camper.  Side note on Sprite:  She has been allowed to go almost everywhere we have gone.  She has been allowed into restaurants and coffee shops and even a few galleries.  This time was no different, but we weren’t really in the mood to play the song and dance of introducing Sprite to yet another dog.  So Colin held her in the back corner under our table.  She was invisible to everyone in the restaurant except the older dog that came around the corner.  Sprite went into a 4 alarm fit.  There was a huge group sitting at 3 tables at the center of the restaurant and all looked over wondering where that screeching-bark-hiss fit just came from.  They were puzzled and asking each other in Spanish, “Where? Where?” and even looked under the table to investigate but couldn’t see her.  Colin grabbed her harness and lifted her up to show what was lurking below.  Everyone started to laugh, while Sprite hung by her harness as if to say, “Hola amigos, it was me.”

Scorpion Bay

The next morning brought another incredible sunrise while we got our heads together.  Colin pulled out all his tools and collection of spare parts.  We started dismantling the roll over couch to see if we could get to the bolt.  The piece that was snapped off was also stuck in the connection point so that took some work to get loose (part one).  Getting into the guts of the camper, Colin comes up with a carriage bolt and then has a thought.  Digging through his spare parts he pulls out another bolt from an extra battery connector and takes a stab to see if it will fit.  It slides right in and we can hardly believe our luck…we are back in the game!!!!  “What are you gonna say now about all these spare parts?” Colin says to me not looking for an answer.  In my defense, space is limited and I now know more important for parts than other creature comforts.

Helping someone in need!

Between clouds and sand

Moving Towards the Mainland

Our first month in Mexico unfolds by the people we meet, both locals and other travelers, who are looking for nothing more in return than conversation, which is a small glance into the window of each other’s journey.  We always walk away with more than when we started:  Hand-drawn maps of roads with no names that lead to spots that we would never have discovered on our own.  Actual maps with fresh arrows and circles marked in inked.  Personal contact information.  Invitations to dinner.  Lending tools and hands.  A reminder of the human soul, crossing cultures, we are more alike than we are different.

Stretching 1,000 miles, the Baja has more beaches than we have time to explore.  Each with a personality as different as the people laying on its shore.  We find crashing waves so loud it is hard to sleep.  We find water as clear and blue as a swimming pool that deepens to sapphire.  We find isolated white sandy beaches with waves softly brushing the shore.  We find curling waves dotted with surfers and rocky coastlines.  We find beaches on the Pacific side and the Gulf of California side, quiet lagoons, to vast and wide open water.  We drive to the tip of the peninsula and make our way back around to La Paz…

I am typing this from the confines of the truck.  Which we have been sitting in for about 24 hours at this point.  We are carefully placed on top of a freight ferry heading from La Paz to Mazatlan on the mainland. It’s a long story, but by the time we figured out how to get a ticket (language barrier in full effect) and get in line to wait for the ferry, which then takes 2 hours to load, we still have an 18 hour ride ahead of us.  We witnessed semi trucks parallel parking around other cargo containers.  I looked out my window and two huge truck grills are within arms reach.  They have managed to use every bit of space, including the loading ramp that has a semi (with a full load) chained at an incline.  Since this ferry doesn’t offer separate cabins, we sit in the truck looking at each other and Colin says, “The three amigos!” We feel the push of the ferry and the motion of taking off.   We see land in the horizon and wonder what the next leg of this journey holds.

Can you spot us?? On the ferry to Mazatlan

Cabo Pulmo

Little Cafe in El Triunfo

Sprite considering friends

Catching more rainbows