Tod and Lisa’s Year of Adventure

Life on the Road to Central America

Welcoming the New Year December 29, 2009

Filed under: USA — todandlisa @ 8:34 pm
Hello all and Happy New Years! After over a year’s absence from our blog we figured we figured we’d resurrect it for our holiday letter.  I hope this message finds you and your family healthy and looking forward to your coming year.
Our 2009 was relatively quiet and domestic compared with our travels in 2008.  The year started with a new addition to our family….Bodie, yet another rescued Cheseapeake Bay Retriever. He has been a great playmate for Alli and his world-class cuddling skills endeared him to us quickly.

Bodie tries to look proper while Alli plays with a rock

Of course Bodie had to learn how to travel, so in late February Lisa took the van and kids down to southern Arizona for a few weeks in the  sun. I enjoyed tracking her with the Spot (her Personal Locator Beacon) but grew a bit concerned when once it showed she was camping in Mexico.  Fortunately she called in often enough to let me know she was fine and still North of the border.  For a minute there I suspected she was making a run for it!  By the time I flew down for my Spring Break the family was in full vacation groove and I quickly joined in.  Among other things our sabbatical helped us develop our “chill skills” and we put them to good use while enjoying the camping and climbing at Cochise Stronghold, east of Tucson.
Summer was filled with lots of regional camping. We spent about a month of camping in the Uinta mountains outside of Logan,UT and were snowed out (in July!) of another trip to the Wind River mountains with our good friends the Gervases.  The highlight of the summer for me was having my sister Georgia’s family come to visit us in Idaho which included a camping trip to Stanley Lake in the Sawtooths.

The Muellers discover the Sawtooths

It was wonderful getting to experience the outdoors through the eyes of my nephews!

Alex shows off his captive frog

Stefan wields the worlds biggest marshmellow stick

Lisa gives a botany lesson

I did manage to get up to the Canadian Rockies for a fantastic week of climbing with my friend Peter.  The Bugaboo spires have been a dream trip of mine since I first saw a picture of them.  They certainly lived up to their reputation of long beautiful climbs.

The way down....

Tod says; "Forget the view, how do we get down?"

With the end of summer we went back to our routines (for now!) with Lisa continuing to work with her clients and me starting another year at the middle school.  I made several trips to Denver to see my parents where they moved to be closer to my sisters family. Visiting our friends the Monroes in the Tetons was our best little getaway trip. Winter break has been quiet, as we’ve enjoyed the local nordic skiing and dinners with friends.

Local winter fun with friends

After years of failing health my father passed away before Christmas.    I was fortunate to see him over Thanksgiving while he was still telling his stories of college days and the marines over a drink.  His death has reminded me of the importance of  connection, love and forgiveness.  Not just as values but as actions.  I saw my dad more in his last three years of life than I had in the previous ten, and because of that, and for other reasons as well, our relationship grew, and changed.

There are some of you out there that Lisa and I met on the road, and we may never meet again.  But that does not diminish the value of our relationship.  I have friends in Australia I haven’t seen in over 20 years but they are still a part of my life, a part of who I am.  So I want to say thank you, to all of you:  Old friends, family, fellow travelers, work colleagues and the many more who have touched us.  Thank you for your friendship and know that across the miles and infrequent contacts you still hold a place in our lives.

With love,

Tod and Lisa

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Mayo Update August 12, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — todandlisa @ 7:14 pm

Hi all,

After neglecting our blog for quite awhile we decided to post an update as we seemed to have reached a turning point in our fortunes this summer. We’ll start with a brief update of the last few years for those we haven’t had much contact with then catch you up with our current situation.

After losing the house due to mold and Lisa’s environmental illness we felt we had landed on our feet by finding a care-taking position on a small tree farm during winter months and living in our travel trailer (an Airstream) the rest of the year. Pretty ideal for vagabonds like us! Lisa’s health and chemical sensitivities were slowly improving and it felt like we were on track to a full recovery when she started experiencing severe abdominal pain in the spring of 2012.

Another year of doctors visits and uncertain diagnoses finally led us to have her gall bladder removed in March of this year. A routine surgery that not only didn’t alleviate the pain but created even worse symptoms we are still dealing. Feeling desperate we drove out the Mayo Clinic in July to see what their doctors could tell us.

The remainder is from an email that we wrote as an update to family:

First of all we should say that we now understand why Mayo has the
reputation it does. It is truly a patient-centered, world class medical
facility. It makes us wonder why medicine is not practiced this way
everywhere. It’s not just that they have the brightest minds from all over
the world. Those folks are attracted to work here because of the system of
care that’s in place. As some of you know, we applied to the Arizona Mayo
clinic last summer but were rejected. At the time we thought this meant we’d
been rejected from the entire system of clinics and it wasn’t until the
failed gallbladder surgery that we found out otherwise.

Lisa’s overseeing doctor is in the GI department (from Ecuador no less!) and
he met with us to give us his thoughts on all the different testing and his
consultations with the many other physicians we saw. Now they are
establishing some medication and physical therapy/rehab protocols.

The short of it is that the Mayo clinic would never have removed the
gallbladder due to my testing results. They believe the abdominal pain has
been the interaction of three different things, none of which on their own
would be too bad, but together create the significant pain I experience
during flares:
1. Abdominal Myalgia (a muscle that radiates pain laterally from spine
around to the front near her belly button at dermatone 10 where the pain is
and they think is linked to myofascial and deep muscle issues.
2. Heterozygous for Hemachromotosis (high iron levels in the blood that can
be really dangerous if it gets out of hand, causing abdominal pain, extreme
fatigue, heart disease, arthritis, and liver disease). Most heteros don’t
display symptoms but some of my iron tests are consistently in the
abnormally high range (although on the low end of that spectrum).
3. Pelvic floor dysfunction resulting from an abnormally-shaped transverse
colon that slows transit time causing radiating pain. My time in the
dysentery ward in Guatemala in 2001 may have exacerbated this also.

In addition as some of you know, I have had burning in the spine and
numbness/tingling in the left leg. We met with one of the premier
neurologists there (from Argentina and a Professor also) who ruled out any
neurological issues (such as MS, etc). Luckily, the MRIs of the spine were
clean and the spots on my brain MRIs are not remotely what one would see
with MS. Instead, they appear to be migraine-related (even though I only
experience silent migraines usually and had not received that as a firm
diagnosis before).

Another aspect of this has been the medical trauma triggered by the surgery.
The lead doctor for the GI unit we worked with (he was from India and
oversaw the GI doc), gently leaned forward and pushed against Lisa’s
shoulder to say Lisa had hit a tipping point. They were very respectful of
the mold illness diagnosis saying they know how dangerous it is and believed
the stress of losing the house, our belongings, the stress of an
environmental illness and the unresolved abdominal pain proved too much when
the surgery was thrown on top of it. Ironically, it seems like Lisa’s
environmental illness has been improving for which we’re very grateful.

Anyhow, the prognosis for recovery is good but there’s a lot of work to be
done between here and there. Medications are starting to help but are
needing to be adjusted to alleviate side effects. There are some physical
therapy requirements too which, as most of you know, is a slow process. They
would like Lisa to return to Mayo for 2 weeks of rehab, but we’re waiting to
start that due to expenses.

So that’s the update. We are recuperating in Stanley, our traditional
vacation spot, with nothing on the agenda but relaxing, swimming the dogs
and short hikes amongst the mountain splendor. I head back to work in a few
weeks and before then, we move into a new townhome in Hailey which is an
exciting step towards stability for us. Pray that Lisa can safely live and
heal in that space.

Thanks again for the ongoing support. We’re not through this yet but we are
coming away from Minnesota with some answers which is what we came here for!

Sincerely,
Tod and Lisa

So that’s where we are now. I guess no one ever plan’s for these types of life-changing events. We are hopeful though that we can get back to a semblance of normal in the next year or two and start rebuilding and planning our futures from there.

 

Losing Everything to Gain Everything July 26, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — todandlisa @ 6:53 pm

[Hello everyone. Many of you haven’t heard from us in some time.  We hope that the following story explains some of what has been going on with us this past year.]

Guatemalan self portrait

Lisa’s Story

Imagine standing in front of your house.  It contains your memories, your belongings… and you can’t go in.  You want to, desperately, but you know what will happen if you do.  First, you’ll start to feel burning pain in your wrists and the rotator cuffs of your shoulders.  Then you’ll have stabbing in your deltoid muscles of your upper arms, followed by numbness and tingling in your left arm and hand that ends in the upper left chest. Your vision will start to go blurry.  From there, if you stay longer, it’ll be hard to breathe and you’ll feel faint.

And that’s not the worst of it.

The next day, even if you leave, you’ll wake up feeling like you ran a marathon. Incredible muscle and joint pain will course throughout your body; pain so bad you’ll cry and grit your teeth to roll over in bed. It feels like fire is in your spine, burning into your left hip and out your left foot. The base of your skull aches and your neck becomes unstable, clicking with each turn as pain radiates from it.  Finally, the muscles of your upper back will start to clench and burn.

You’ll be unable to think clearly and will stumble finding words. At its worst, you’ll be dropping things and feel like you’ve had a frontal lobotomy. Then later in the day, you’ll start feeling like you’re dying and begin sobbing uncontrollably. Thoughts of suicide come up from nowhere and you start to wonder if you’re sane.

This is not a dream for me . This extreme reaction has been my life for the last six months and haunted me in lesser or more isolated forms for the past three years.  It is a pattern we’ve been through many times. One that has now led Tod and I to give up our house, all our belongings and begin my true journey of healing.

Mysterious Symptoms

Let me start from the beginning. For those of you who know us well, you’ll know that I’ve been ill for over ten years with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and random problems like fatigue that would keep me in bed a week and horrible canker sores, up to 30 at a time.

During those ten years I visited an amazing array of western and alternative medicine doctors and practitioners. Everyone tried to help, but nothing seemed to stick and many of the protocols – diet, herbal, conventional – often left me feeling more ill.

And those were the good old days, when I still functioned normally most of the time.

It’s different now.

Upon returning from our trip to Panama, I was strangely desperate to get rid of our house and stay out of it. I slept in the van for over a week because I didn’t want to be in the house. Many people thought I was being unreasonable and that I just wanted to stay on the road. The truth was much darker- on some level I knew the house would make me desperately ill.

Within six months of our return I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia (chronic joint and muscle pain) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In the next three years I would also be tested for MS (Multiple Sclerosis), Lyme disease and brain tumors.

At my worst I could barely speak and it was a challenge to walk across my bedroom. I was in constant pain and felt like all my life energy was being drained out of my body. I again tried many treatments, hoping to utilize the best of integrative medicine.  While many seemed to help for a month of two, they would then stop working and I was even worse off.

The worst part was the isolation.  I didn’t appear sick but was trapped at home and unable to explain to anyone what was wrong.  Social plans were often cancelled and we eventually stopped making them due to the unpredictability of my health.  It was difficult for friends to understand.

After two years of this I revisited my early concerns about the house and the potential for mold.  But how could our beautiful home be moldy, we asked ourselves?

The Real Problem

When we were in Guatemala three years before, I woke up one morning in a panic and told Tod that our renters were gone.. Of course, there was no reason to believe this, they had signed a year’s lease and seemed quite happy with our home.  However, after a quick phone call, we discovered that they had indeed moved out without notice. Given that it was the one of the biggest winters on record, not having someone taking care of the house was a problem and our usual ice dam issues grew enormous.

When we eventually returned home, there was an area of yellow on the ceiling of our master bedroom showing the water damage from the winter. A contractor we called about fixing it said not to worry about mold because we live in such a dry climate. Unfortunately, this well meaning advice was wrong.

Much later, when the mold remediators tore into our bedroom, they found over two square feet of mold.  Plus, there was water damage to one third of the ceiling, walls and wood floor.  It may not seem like much but we learned that over a million spores can live in one square inch mold

To make matters worse, we later discovered four inches of standing water in our crawl space. It turns out we’d had a freeze break on one of our exterior faucet and whenever we left the water on for long periods of time (i.e. filling the pond or hot tub) it filled our crawl space. In retrospect, we should have known when our end-of-the-world food stash showed signs of water damage and some plants were growing in our crawl space.

It’s hard to believe that in that beautiful house I was getting hit from above and below by mold, mycotoxins, bacteria and other particles that create the toxic soup known as water damaged building (WDB) or sick building syndromes.

Looking back, it turns out my beautiful office in Hailey I’d had for years had a leak in the ceiling tiles and air venting system too.  I had spent almost all of my days in a water damaged building of some sort, not knowing what it was doing to me.

The Path to Discovery

So how did I sort all this out?

In December of last year we bought our dream camper rig – a 1997 Tiger Provan in excellent condition. It only had one problem – it was from Seattle.  A window leak and some black mold on the fiberglass roof outside seemed like minor issues at the time for the great price we paid. Wrong.

I should have known when I could only drive it to my parents’ house three hours away before I started feeling really ill…and by the next day I was exhausted, in bed, and felt like I was going to die. Tod had to fly in to drive us back home.

Then, on my birthday, we took it camping…in a rainstorm. I started to have panic attacks, flash-back like memories, and again, was sobbing uncontrollably. My muscles hurt so bad it felt like someone had been punching me and pouring fire in my joints.  This was the worst of the worst.

It seems obvious now, but suddenly we realized that this wasn’t just my mysterious symptoms coming up again.  It was something in my environment affecting me. Something was wrong with this vehicle.

Shortly after, I attended a meditation retreat in coastal California. Within hours of being on the property I started to have the neurotoxic physical and emotional symptoms again and had to leave.  I finally started taking seriously the connection between my environment and mold.

Finally, three years too late, we had the mold remediators come in.  I mistakenly believed their statement that it was safe for me to stay in the house. While it may have been safe for someone else, within hours of them opening up the ceiling the horrible symptoms started again, worse than ever. I had to flee my home.

Happier days in our home

I spent February living with my family in Washington while the remediation was done.  This was when I discovered Ritchie Shoemaker’s book Surviving Mold. I asked my doctor to approve some of the recommended tests. After a quick blood draw it was clear: I not only had two mold susceptible genes but all three test results fit the pattern of mold poisoning.

After the remediation was completed I finally returned home. I did okay for about 4 days then the symptoms started again and we couldn’t figure out why. This was when we discovered the second blow: the water in the crawl space.   As it was spring break for Tod, I left for Washington again while he drained the crawlspace and left a dehumidifier running for the week to dry it out completely.  Within seconds of opening the door upon our return, I felt like I’d been hit by an invisible wall. I pushed through it – as I am known to do – only to have difficulty breathing by the morning. It was then we realized our tragic mistake.  The dehumidifier had dried the crawl space but also pulled the dust, mold, mycotoxins and bacteria from below and dispersed them throughout the house.  That night I left home again, not knowing it would be for the final time.

Desperate for a solution, I went into research mode as best I could with my severe symptoms. I discovered a website written by other mold refugees: http://www.momsagainstmold.org and emailed the author, Andrea, for advice on doctors.  She had been through it all: from the strange symptoms, to the disbelief, to finally leaving her home and fleeing to Arizona…and all of this with her family of nine. Andrea referred me to a board certified family practice doctor in Santa Barbara who specializes in mold/environmental illness and, most importantly, had also been through this herself.

My first appointment was on April 15, 2011 and lasted six hours.

Since then, it has been quite the roller coaster ride.

Environmental Refugees

Once out of the house, we moved through 5 hotel rooms, eventually learning that we were cross-contaminating each one by bringing our belongings with us.  It was then that we realized we had to get rid of everything. One of the hardest moments was standing in the supermarket aisle in our hastily bought new clothes, buying toothbrushes, toothpaste, and shampoo. I just cried because it all felt so surreal.

Our first priority was to find a safe place for me to live.  This was more difficult than we ever imagined. We’ve looked at over 40 rentals in the Wood River valley and have yet to find a place I can live.  We even spent a trial night in one, only to leave after a couple hours. Between mold, water damage in the roof or crawl space, and chemical sensitivities we knew we would have to get creative.

For now we have settled into a little 19 foot Airstream trailer.  A lot of factors made this our best choice. First off,  I could be in it without getting sick because it is truly green construction with very little offgassing! Other new RVs or trailers made me ill right away. All of the used ones smelled musty, which is a warning sign of potential mold. The walls are metal so we don’t have to worry about condensation breeding mold on them. It’s small and easy to keep clean. And finally it offers the mobility needed to visit friends, family and doctors with a safe place to live and sleep.   We were blessed enough to find new one in Spokane, WA that had been sitting on a lot for 25% off too.  So that is our home for now and while we’ve had some water leak scares, it appears we’ve managed to catch each one early enough to prevent mold formation.  By the way, her name is Hummingbird, or as the license plate says: HMNBGRD.

Another major issue was transportation. We needed something to pull our Hummingbird home.  For the truck, we originally bought a new Toyota Tundra that was all vinyl and rubber mats that would be mold free for life. Unfortunately, we hadn’t factored in the chemical sensitivity issues and soon realized I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the off-gassing.  That new car smell isn’t just a smell. It is actually volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are toxic. After two months I still wasn’t able to ride in it at all.  In searching for a replacement we looked at 60 used trucks before we could find two we could test drive and one we could buy: our 2006 Chevy Silverado half ton.

We are currently looking for another Subaru as our run around car.  We bought one in February near the start of all this but it has, predictably, become cross-contaminated from Tod’s visits back to the house.  Having to buy yet another vehicle (this will be our sixth in a year) is part of what is so crazy making about all this.

The Diagnosis

So what really is a mold diagnosis?  When looking at mold problems there are really four main issues:

1. Mold allergies – either Type 1 (immediate and usually severe, like a peanut allergy) or Type 3 (delayed onset so it is difficult to link it to anything). I have no Type 1 allergies at all (to over 35 common items), but do have a bunch of food sensitivities which are different. Interestingly, mold did not show up as a problem as a Type 1 or Type 3 allergy (i.e., I could eat mushrooms without any problems).

2. Mold infection, including Candida. The Mayo Clinic has research suggesting that over 90% of sinus infections are fungal in origin. My sinuses are growing a fungus known as Bipolaris which is found in water-damaged buildings. Strangely, my doctor has never seen it in a person before but hopefully the prescribed nasal antifungal will get rid of it.

3. Mold poisoning (Mycotoxicosis) – usually involving genetics that cannot identify mold and mycotoxins, thereby failing to alert the body they are present and need to be removed.  This is my biggest issue.

4. Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS) – Dr. Shoemaker considers mycotoxicosis a bio-toxin illness that causes an unchecked chronic inflammatory response in the body. Mycotoxicosis leads to CIRS. This explains the pain I experience and preliminary research suggests it may cause up to 80% of the cases of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. It is less a cause of illness as an explanation of what happens as a result of the mold poisoning.

Note that you can have more than one of these problems in play…I seem to three of the four right now.

My current diagnosis is Mycotoxicosis and Neurotoxic Brain Injury (NBI) which is also known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).

Mycotoxicosis literally means mold poisoning but actually isn’t as much about the mold as the toxins produced by mold.  Mold and mold spores can be removed by remediation; mycotoxins on the other hand can only be destroyed by 500 degree heat and are related to epoxy so they act like glue. This is why once you’ve been poisoned and you have the bad genetics I have, you often need to just get rid of everything. If I am even in the same room as anything from the house, the symptoms begin again. It’s really quite crazy.

To confirm this diagnosis, I did a urine test that is used in court litigation cases. They test for parts per billion of three of the most dangerous types of mycotoxins. I was positive for 2 of the 3, one of which is trichothecenes. These are produced by the infamous black mold Stachybotrys chartarum and known as T-2 mycotoxins.  T-2 mycotoxins are nasty poisons that make up 80% of the Department of Defense’s bio-warfare program and are the foundation for Yellow Rain. They kill you by blocking all forms of protein synthesis in the body. Nasty stuff.

The NBI/MCS is less well understood. The current dominant theory is that a toxin-induced loss of tolerance (TILT) results in the breakdown of my body’s detoxification pathways. Luckily, I seem to be able to tolerate being around perfumes and other strong smells but pesticides and herbicides send me running. Part of the problem with NBI/ MCS is that the blood-brain barrier has been compromised (think of having swiss-cheese like holes in it) and that is why one can react so quickly when exposed to molds or other water damage building components.

Although most of you have never heard of mold poisoning, we are finding it is more common than realized.  One leading expert in the field, a brilliant toxicologist named Dr. Thrasher, calls mold exposure our newest pandemic. He cites one example of our nations aging school buildings making children ill, estimating roughly that 30-40% of schools have water damage in them.  An even larger problem is the ubiquitous drywall used in construction – it is the perfect food for mold to grow on if it gets the slightest bit damp. While many are not affected like I am, some are and haven’t been correctly diagnosed.  Regardless, it’s clear that I am not alone in this.

Pieces of the Puzzle

Many people want to know if I am getting better from just being out of the house. The answer lies in my previous exposures and my genes.

It turns out that about 24% of the population has genotypes that are unable to detoxify mold. So when Tod is exposed, his body finds the poisons and removes them like any other toxin. He doesn’t get sick. Mine doesn’t even notice the intruders so they just build up in my body. In addition, I not only have the exposure from the house and my office but from many other experiences in my life.

As a firefighter at the age of 23, I was cleaning out Forest Service cabins in Washington when I became extremely fatigued. I felt like I had the flu and had to crawl a quarter mile from our tent to the main compound for help. No one could figure it out and I slowly recovered over the course of 3 weeks. Looking back, I now know it was due to the mold exposure in those cabins.

After my late husband Kevin died, I had chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. I weighed only 107 pounds. My mind felt like it wasn’t working right and I was emotionally unstable; all symptoms readily ascribed to grief. The truth was that I was being poisoned by straw bale studio I was living in at the time – the very place we had built in Kevin’s honor.

Even as Kevin died, I now understand that his body was being affected by the moldy environ too. He coughed up blood while he was dying which perplexed his doctors. This is not normal for a brain tumor patient. However, it is normal for someone suffering from fungal colonization of the upper respiratory tract and lungs. His already weakened immune system couldn’t fight off the the toxic mold emanating from the straw. Even as the brain tumor caused his death, his body was alerting me that something was wrong with the strawbale studio. Too bad we couldn’t interpret the signs. It wasn’t until six months after moving back into the main house that I started feeling normal again.

And most recently, I had 8 years struggling with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Coming on the heels of my first trip to Guatemala and that dysentery ward stay, everyone assumed it was caused by parasites I’d been exposed to. However,  it turns out that IBS is yet another sign of mold poisoning. I think of it as low grade exposure because I was able to live a normal life otherwise; this fits the low grade exposures at my office and house at that time. Of course, yet another warning sign was that none of the conventional and alternative (naturopath, chinese medicine, energy work)  treatments for IBS provided sustained relief either. We were simply missing the root cause.

This is what confirms my diagnosis of an environmental illness. Aside from the many tests, it explains so many of my life’s health mysteries. My doctor has described it as a cup that is finally full.  After years of exposure from our home and throughout my life, my cup is overflowing with toxins and making me sicker than I have ever been.

Treatment

Treatment of mycotoxicosis and NBI is three-pronged consisting of:

1 – Mold and chemical avoidance – selling everything we own and getting rid of our house, plus monitoring my environment closely. While this seems dramatic, it is the only effective way to ensure recovery. Most people use all their savings trying to remediate their homes, only to end up having to leave anyway. This is a very common occurrence when you have the genetic predisposition that I have. Most remediations after long term exposures fail, according to doctors and toxicologists I talked to, because it is impossible to remove the mycotoxins. This was true in our case too. We realized just how bad it was when Tod spent four days back in the house preparing for the auction and began to experience hip pain, lesions on his face and brain fog. These symptoms abated once he left the house, but were the first symptoms I developed.

2 – Removing toxins from my body – using binding agents such as activated charcoal and cholestyramine. Glutathione acts as the master antioxidant that I drink, spray up my nose, and inhale into my lungs. I also use anti-fungal nose-sprays.

3 – Rebuilding the broken down parts of my body – using careful lab testing to determine what deficiencies my body has and supplementing those specifically. We also found many food sensitivities that are a common occurrence with mycotoxicosis (including to coconut oil, oregano oil, garlic and yeasts known to help the body (like S. Boulardii). These were all supplements I’d taken before to help my body heal, which were inadvertently doing more damage.

The Way Forward

My current prognosis looks at a 3-5 year recovery period. Why so long? My understanding is that my broken down detoxification pathways can only handle so much at a time so I must go slowly. If I detox too fast, I get much sicker. On top of that, any mold infections can only be broken down in the mycelial form and that can take a long time. To be honest, we’ve been in so much chaos just trying to get a safe and stable base set up I haven’t been able to explore this more but intend to do so. My goal would be to shorten that to 2 years.

Our short term plan is that unless we find a rental this fall, Tod will stay in Hailey for the winter and I’ll take the trailer south. I hope that being out of the snow and closed buildings for a year will help me heal. As for now, we’re camping on forest service lands outside of Ketchum next to beautiful rivers and trees. And of course, we can’t complain about that!

The good news is that it won’t always be this hard.  While I’ll always need to avoid mold as much as possible, I should be able to live a pretty normal life. As my doctor says (she’s 7 years out now) she knows if she’s in a water damaged building that she’ll feel a little bad the next day, but that’s it. Some medications I may need for life but otherwise I’ll be able to hike and run and have my energy and endurance back…something I’ll never take for granted again. Plus, my doctor travels a lot which is something I hope to be able to do in the future.

Technically I’m doing much better than lots of folks at this stage and I attribute that to being proactive, the energy work I’ve done, meditation & prayer, following a pretty strict diet for years and the treatments I had pursued that helped to strengthen my immune system and body overall. Of course, all this is secondary to the amazing support I’ve received from my wonderful husband Tod and dogs, my family and friends…and the grace of the Divine.

Home for now

Losing Everything to Gain Everything

So…to put it succinctly…we are starting over totally from scratch after all hell broke loose. By that I mean all we’ve kept from the old life are our wedding rings. Our friends are holding a few photo albums and paintings too in the hope that someday I’ll be able to tolerate them.

On the one hand, living in a small house on wheels with limited belongings is a dream come true for me.  I get to live a simple life in alignment with my values. I hope that 3 years from now I’ll be well enough to feel this way most of the time. On the other hand, right now it’s hard to forget that it is a tiny refuge from a hostile world that seems to make me ill no matter which way I turn.

This weekend was the auction to sell our belongings.  This marks the true end and beginning, a place of no turning back.  There is a sense of relief around finally having completed this step and committing fully to the process of healing.

HOUSE AUCTION AD

I sometimes have thoughts that maybe I am making this up and I should just go back in the house and it will all be better. It takes Tod to remind me of what happens when I get “hit”, as we call it.  It is all so unreal, like a bad movie that you’re caught in the middle of, just doing your best to put one foot in front of the other.

I have experienced trauma before – from the death of my late husband Kevin to the dysentery ward of a remote Guatemalan hospital – but nothing like this. We joke sometimes that we’d be better off if our house had burned in a fire – our insurance would cover it and we could live anywhere. This is a fire that takes everything with no insurance and no safe place to rebuild.

So we have good days – when I can hike 3 or 4 miles and feel pretty good – and bad days, where I’m in lots of pain, fatigued and struggle to get out of bed. It’s frustrating because I still get blindsided by places or items I thought would be safe.  The good news is the bad days are not as frequent as they used to be and my energy levels are much better than before. And of course, just like the stubborn tenacity that made me keep looking for the real reason I was ill, I am equally determined to get better. Now that I know what is really wrong, I will never give up healing.

At one of the darkest times in this journey, I received an email from Andrea, the website author who has become an inspiration to us, about what to do with our house and belongings. She sent me this quote that has nourished me and given me courage in the face of this complex, confusing and mysterious illness.

In Japan they have stone markers placed throughout the villages by their ancestors with important reminders about life.  One reads:“Always be prepared for unexpected tsunamis. Choose life over your possessions and valuables.’’

In this world where we have so much stuff that we grow accustomed to and are comforted by, it’s a shock to walk away from it. But ultimately when the tsunami comes, in whatever form, we have a choice.

And I choose LIFE.


 

Another New Year January 2, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — todandlisa @ 9:32 pm

Happy New Years once again!

Lisa and I hope that 2011 finds you in good health and cheer.  Winter is deep here this year and I have shoveled more already than I did all of last year.  We’ve spent the holidays quietly; nordic skiing almost everyday, watching movies or reading in front of the fire.  Enjoying the idleness that is often so elusive in our frenetic culture.   I hope your family enjoyed a peaceful holiday season as well.

Lisa's 40th birthday

2010 was a milestone for Lisa as she turned 40 in January.  We celebrated the event at a yurt in the mountains near our home with our friends Matt and Mary.   It was a great night and we followed it up with a weekend of skiing and hot springs soaking in Stanley, Idaho.

Princess Lisa rocks the yurt with her new travel guitar

Springtime found us once again in Cochise Stronghold (near Tombstone, Arizona) enjoying the sunshine and warm rock.  Our friends Steve and Kristen joined us there this year which added to the fun.  This spring break is becoming a tradition that I think we’ll be repeating again this year.

Thawing out in Cochise Stronghold outside Tombstone, AZ

Lisa continues her volunteer work with Chesapeake Bay Retriever Relief and Rescue foundation.  As the only Idaho representative she is frequently involved in saving Chessies from being euthanized and helping to find them homes.

Lisa and Sadie, one of her “rescues”

Another annual event was our camping trip with the Mueller’s in June.   It’s such a treat to get to see the wonder in the eyes of my nephew’s Alex and Stephen as they explore the outdoors.  This year we met in Flaming Gorge on the Green River in northwest Utah.  The heat kept us in the water much of the time but thankfully Brian brought the boat which made that easy.

Floating fun at Flaming Gorge

The rest of the summer involved local hiking and camping as well as another backpacking trip into the Wind Rivers of Wyoming and climbing in the Tetons for me.  I also entered my first trail race which I really enjoyed as it was 25 km of all trail running  up and over the Grey’s River range in Wyoming.  Might even do another this year.

Pointing out an anticipated climb in the Winds

Fall brought my return to work and more local hiking for us and the dogs.  I was honored locally as an Unsung Hero for prevention work with young people which was quite a flattering surprise. We also attended Kim’s wedding (Lisa’s sister) in Seattle which was a great weekend of fun and celebration with family.

Are we there yet? One more long drive for the kids.

The year rounded out with an exciting new addition to our little family. In December we purchased a 1997 Tiger ProVan CX…a truck camper we had been envying ever since seeing our first one in Costa Rica. That means Lisa spent three years researching these rigs and then figuring out how to buy one. They’re quite expensive new and not many are made each year, so these older units are in high demand…within a day of the listing on a special owner’s site there were 10 calls on it. That meant we had to move fast. Lisa took advantage of her ability to fly standby (thanks Kim!) and got to Seattle two days later without even seeing photos!  Bella (our name for her) is a big step up for us: a fully outfitted RV that has 4 wheel drive.  Oh, the places we’ll go!  No big plans as yet but stay tuned.

Bella, our new ride.

In closing, we are grateful for the opportunities we’ve had to enjoy our wonderful landscape here in the Northern Rockies.  As usual, our dreams always seem to be a little bigger than what we can manage to achieve but that should never stop us from dreaming.  We hope that you’ll see some of your dreams fulfilled in this new year.

Fondly,

Tod and Lisa
Bodie, Allie and Josie

Wishing you a new year that's out of this world!

 

Misfire! December 30, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — todandlisa @ 12:30 pm

Sorry everyone but I published our Holiday letter a little prematurely last night. I had meant just to save the draft! Anyhow if you go directly to our link (www.todandlisa.com) you should see the post in full.

My apologies and Happy New Years everyone,

Tod

 

Back in the US: Trading Highways for Hiking August 7, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized,USA — todandlisa @ 10:18 am

Our re-entry to the US has us dragging our feet in a lot of regards. Although we are excited about some things; such as seeing our friends and family, the weight of returning to our responsibilities in Hailey is also a bit heavy after the freedoms of the road. Updating the blog has been one of those responsibilities we’ve been avoiding so now that we’ve been back in the US for over a month now I guess it’s time to catch up with everyone. Some people still think we are in Mexico!

Canyon hiking in New Mexico

Upon leaving Oaxaca we headed north pretty directly for us. We covered over 5000 miles in June which was a quarter of the total 20,000 mile we drove during the course of the trip. Our camping consisted mostly of staying in gas stations and rest stops along the highway at the end of the days drive, some of which were surprisingly nice. Some highlights we did take in while still in Mexico were the towns of Zacateca, another beautiful colonial city in the North reminiscent of Guanajuato, and Tepotzlan, a town south of Mexico city where we hiked up a mountain side to visit some ruins that were unfortunately closed.

We had thought we would spend more time in the Northwest of Mexico exploring the Copper Canyon region but a unique opportunity came up which is what had us hustling north. Friends of ours, Matt and Mary Gervase, were planning a week long backpacking trip into the Wind River mountain range and had invited us to join them. One of the things I missed most in our travels through Central America was the ability to access mountain wilderness and the recreation that goes with that. This offer was sweetened by two things: the fact that we would be using llamas to haul most of our gear into a high camp (9 months of driving is not a great fitness program for backpacking) and I would have a chance to climb Gannett Peak, the highest in Wyoming. Quite the attractive package!

The requisite cute Alli shot. That’s Gannett Peak in the background, left of center

After much deliberation we committed to the trip and started churning out the miles. Because of recent drug violence in the border towns near New Mexico we chose to cross the border in Texas and then cut across the western part of the state. Being in the desert the roads were much more direct than any we’d been on so far so it was easy to cover big distances. Finally, in New Mexico, we took a break from the heat and the long days of by spending a few days in the mountains around Silver City, New Mexico. We enjoyed a visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and day hiking and camping amongst the high pines and sandstone cliffs.

Living in a cliff dwelling seems quite appealing to Tod

After New Mexico we had a hiccup, with Betty on our way into to Phoenix to visit my parents. I won’t call it a breakdown because it wasn’t her fault and she is sensitive about that sort of thing. On our way into the city we stopped for an oil change at one of those quick lube type places which always make me nervous. The mechanic seemed competent, or at least he was older than 17 however, shortly after the oil change, Betty stalled dead in an intersection and we were only able to limp her across the street to another oil change place. The short version of the story is that after one ride behind a tow truck, four different mechanics looking at her, and a full day wasted, someone finally figured out that a rag had been left in the engine compartment and had been sucked into the air intake. Pull the rag out and no more problems. Unfortunately this simple fix cost us about $200 to figure that out. We were really wishing we had broken down in Mexico instead where they probably would have figured it out in an hour and charged us nothing!

Trailside Columbine in the Gila National Forest

Frustrated by this and the 105 degree heat we pushed on to my parents and their new location, an assisted living center west of Phoenix. From there Lisa took Allie and Betty north to rendezvous with her family while I had a few days to catch up with my parents. Afterwards, I flew to the Bay Area to visit my new nephew, Trevor. I spent the weekend getting acquainted with the cute little guy …oh, and visiting my sisters. Then flew into Spokane, WA where Lisa and her mom picked me up. We spent the 4th of July with Lisa’s family and then, with family visits taken care of, moved on to Wyoming where our departure date for the Winds trip was fast approaching. Are you keeping up?

It’s amazing how out of practice we were at simply backpacking. We realized, as we prepared , that it had been five years since the two of us had done an extended pack trip together, mostly because Taku had not been able to hike very far those last five years. This was to be Allie’s first overnighter and we were excited to be in the Western mountains again. After buying enough food for a month and packing gear warm enough for an arctic winter we felt ready to go. First though I joined Mary and Matt in Lander, WY for a two hour crash course in Llama maintenance and upkeep. They are wonderful animals and of such a an easy going nature that they’ll rent them out to a group of novices like us for a week without hesitation. Or at least they didn’t show any. Llamas don’t spook the way horses can and are like goats in that they can eat almost anything so bringing extra food for them isn’t necessary. They are native to the mountains of Peru so are sure-footed, calm and confident. Apparently bears and mountain lions tend to stay away from them as well. Another bonus was that their soft-two toed feet didn’t hurt too bad if they accidentally stepped on you like they did Matt once.

On the trail near Double Lake

Once we learned how to properly load the llamas we were off to the trailhead to meet up with the others of our group. The first day was the hardest, even with the llama support: nine miles up hill with 3000 feet of elevation gain. The end of the trail for us, and basecamp for the climb, was 23 miles from the trailhead at the head of Dinwoody creek. We took three days to get in and were glad we took our time as we saw several folks struggling in under huge loads and tight time schedules. The camping was relaxed in spite of the voracious mosquitoes. We had been warned and were adequately prepared although it was my first time wearing a head net. I quickly learned it’s easier to eat with out the net on as I kept forgetting it was there and would stick sporks full of food into it.

Lisa and Malone talk over dinner

The group consisted of a couple from Seattle, Anne and Greg; our friends Matt and Mary and John, a ski patrol buddy of Matt’s from Hailey. Our three support llamas were Malone, Big Sandy and Pylon, who was a big talker. Everyone was pretty worldly in terms of travel and outdoor adventures so we spent many hours sharing stories around the fire. The trip up Gannett Peak went flawlessly with John, Matt and I being the climbing team. Timing and routefinding went well and the snow was perfect: plenty enough to cover the crevasses and firm with just enough for easy travel. We made the summit by 8 AM after a 2 AM start, a much faster time than we had anticipated as our camp was in the valley and not up in the moraines where most folks camp. We made the hike out in two days with lighter packs and llamas. Our last night at Double Lake was the most beautiful campsite yet with classic Winds scenery: grey granite cliffs climbing up out of clear pools of water.

From Dubois, we said goodbye to our new and old friends and headed over the mountains to visit my college buddy Dave Monroe near Driggs, Idaho. They were having a music festival at Targhee (the local ski hill) that weekend and we caught the last day and danced the evening away to Lyle Lovett and his Large Band. The time with Dave, Allison and the kids was the true highlight however. Caroline, my goddaughter, and Henry were little people now after not having seen them for a year.

Delone and his daughters: Lisa, Michelle and Kim. Notice the resemblance?

One last highlight awaited us before our travels ended for now so we cruised back across Idaho to meet up with Lisa’s family in Eastern Oregon. Delone, Lisa’s dad, had turned 70 this year and his three daughters treated him to a weekend horsepack trip into a lodge in the Wallowa Mountains. The good news is we all got to come along! Horsepacking and riding is a lot more work and expense than llama packing, I learned. I volunteered to hike in with Allie which saved me the pain in the ass (literally) of the time in a saddle. We certainly weren’t roughing it on this trip. The lodge was great with lot’s of good food and a wood fired hot tub as an evening treat. We had rented tepees which was a novel experience but I think I prefer tents overall. Lisa’s family is a fun bunch and the weekend was filled with much laughter and mirth.

The Krueger-Cregger Range Riders

Backcountry hot-tubbing??!!

So now Lisa and I are dragging our feet one more time as “move-in day” ominously approaches this weekend. Kicking around eastern Oregon these last few days looking for campsites and wifi has kept us from facing the reality of our imminent return. While seeing friends again will be great there is an essence of our experience that we know will be hard for us to maintain in face of the responsibilities of work and home. Spontaneity and the freedom from time both will suffer in the face of schedules and routines. What will we be able to hold onto? Stay tuned to find out how the transition goes…

Clean up day on Togwotee Pass after our Winds trip. Lisa heads for a much needed shower.

 

Late Nights with Tod and Lisa June 9, 2008

Filed under: Central America,Mexico,Uncategorized — todandlisa @ 5:54 pm

Lisa and I had this fantasy when we started this trip. A vision of a natural rhythm of going to bed with the sunsets and rising with the sunrise. The first blow to the fantasy was when we discovered that during the winter down here the sun sets around 6:30PM, same as in the states.

A little early for us. Also, since Betty has all the modcons, electricity, stereo etc it’s not like camping in the “wilderness” sense. Often it’s 10:30 before we shut down the computer or put down the guitar. The stretch of road we’ve been on the last few weeks has seen us staying up later and later, usually because of the interesting people we’ve met. No complaints there, especially since we still seem to be getting our ten hours of sleep in!

Our last episode saw us leaving our new friends (and tortilla instructors) the Hernandez family in Lago Yojoa, Honduras and heading out for the classic Mayan ruins tour. First off though, we spent a few days wandering through the southwest of Honduras visiting a string of towns on what is known as the Route of the Lencas (the local indigenous people). While I wrote a blog entry on some of the sad realities of the poverty in this region there was one highlight that I failed to mention.

We arrived at the town of La Esperanza, tired after a long day of driving the slow dusty roads. We had no camping information for the night so we began checking out likely places as we entered town. Usually in these cases we find a restaurant or hotel with a big enough parking lot for us to camp in for the night.

Unfortunately, this not being a tourist town, there was little in the way of those kinds of services. After a frustrating hour of wandering around town following false leads to campsites, we finally pass a soccer field. We had heard of others camping in soccer fields but had never tried it ourselves. This one seemed especially promising because on one corner of the field were a few small RV’s parked next to a big top tent.

That’s right. Big top tent as in a circus! We pulled past the sign announcing the Circo Black &White and parked next to one of the RV’s. A rail thin black man confidently strode toward us to wish us a welcome. Edipo Zaire was his name and we soon learned that he was the contortionist and ringmaster of the circus. Before long he and Lisa were deep in conversation while I assumed my usual role of playing soccer and fetch with the kids (not to worry, Allie was doing most of the fetching, not the kids.) They would have offered Allie a spot in the evenings show but they emphasized that it was a “non-animal” circus out of humanitarian concerns. They also insisted we be their guests for the evening.

The Circus Black and White

What an evening it was! Although more vaudeville than circus it was a bawdy and raucous affair complete with transvestite karaoke, belly dancers and a grand finale skit which starred a white faced (painted) bumbling gringo! As the only gringos in the crowd we got a lot of looks and smiles from the crowd after the show. It was definitely some local color.

One thing we loved about the whole production was that, as with most things in this part of the world, it was an all family show. Edipo and his brother were the lead actors, the wives were the dancing girls and the children served drinks and sold treats at intermission. Edipo’s mom and dad where the real ringleaders as they had been in the circus all their lives and Manuel, the dad, taught Edipo the tricks of being a contortionist. Now-a-days, Manuel operates the popcorn machine, which is two microwaves running full time with piles of instant popcorn bag. Mom seems to be everywhere at once, giving out the orders.

The Zaire family; heart and soul of the Circus Black and White

We wrapped up the evening talking to Edipo and his wife in their RV, talking until late in the evening.
The next day the kids were begging us to stay for the nights show, a different act, as we rolled off towards Gracias and the Copan ruins. We were smiling at how lucky we had been to have a look into their lives.

Another realization of the trip for me is that I really do like some tourist places. Copan Ruinas was one of those places I didn’t think I would like, but did. After years of living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (the national park’s answer to Disneyland) I resented most aspects of tourist towns. However, if you can see beyond the crowds of camera-toting tourists (of which, I humbly have to remind myself, I am one at times) there is a reason everyone is here. In Copan Ruinas, it’s the ruins themselves that bring the people although the town was what really appealed to us. Laid back and friendly with lots of nice cafes and shops is a nutshell description. It’s popular with the younger backpacking set and doesn’t see the fleets of bus tours we would witness in Tikal.

One night we stayed up at the Hacienda San Lucas which is perched on a beautiful hillside property overlooking town, the river and the ruins themselves. It was our splurge dinner night (we have one per country), and we had picked the right place to go big. In a trip full of great meals in exotic locations this was one of the best. A set menu of six courses included an authentic Mayan cuisine with items such as roasted corn soup, tamales with Mayan herb sauce, roast chicken in adobe sauce, blue corn tortillas….you get the idea. The setting on the patio was intimate, lit only by oil lamps, with views over the lights of town. We met another British couple as well for the perfect end to the day with conversation, again, late into the evening.

The Copan museum with mock temple and stelae

The next morning we chose to skip the ruins themselves on recommendations from other travelers. The real gem we found is the museum on the grounds of the ruins. It includes a full size temple reconstruction, painted as it might have looked at the time of the Mayans. It is surrounded by many of the stelae, tall stone slabs with glyphs carved on all sides, that Copan is so well known for. The stelae were brought into the museum to protect them from the elements and replaced by replicas in the surrounding ruins. In all it was one of our best “ruin” experiences and we never even actually walked through the ruins!

And, after that, now we were finally back to Guatemala. Guatemala was the site of our first Central American adventures seven years ago. It still holds a bit of mystique for the both of us from those times . It’s grown in ways during the intervening years: cell phones are ubiquitous, there are less chicken buses and more shiny mini vans, roads are paved, and prices are higher. Still though, there is a sense for me that these are the lost Mayans. Eighty percent of the population is indigenous with most of them living in remote villages in the highlands. An old lady walking along the roadside in traditional dress with a bundle of firewood for cooking balanced neatly on her head seems oblivious to the traffic passing her by. A thousand years ago the same woman could be walking along some ancient forest trail and not be out of place.

Playa Trinidad was one of our best beach camps

Our first campsite was a great little beach on Lake Isabal. We had some of our best beach experiences in Guatemala and none of them were on the ocean! Afterwards we pushed north into the Peten and stayed for a few nights at Finca Ixobel, the first “real” campground we had seen since Costa Rica. Tikal wasn’t too far away now but we seemed to have a hard time getting there. First we went to Flores on Lake Peten but wanted to get away from the hustle so we drove around the lake to find Playa Trinidad, another beautiful beach get away. Jose, the vigilante (night watchman) remembered our good friends Paul and Bridgette who had recommended it to us, and welcomed us warmly. We also met Oscar, the owner we met the next day as it was Sunday, the beaches only busy day. We sat in hammocks most of the day reading and talking with Oscar. Allie had a crowd of kids chanting for her as she lept off the dock for sticks.

Airborne Allie goes big!

The next day found us back in Flores running errands with Oscar as our guide. Betty needed new shocks and Lisa got some medical tests for her continuing gut ailments. All the tests turned out negative which is a relief and frustrating at the same time as she is still plagued with intestinal issues from our first trip here. At least there are no lingering Guatemalan intestinal hitchhikers! We spent that night in Flores on the waterfront but slept little because of the heat and all the police and others walking by all night. In the Peten at this time of year, escaping the heat means being in the water which wasn’t always an option.

The Gran Jaguar temple at sunset, Tikal

Finally, the next day we made it to world famous Tikal. These are the temples that people think of when they hear Mayan ruins. We had to sneak Allie in as the whole area is a national park and closed to dogs. She stayed nice and quiet in the back while twice I had to assure the park guard we had no mascotas (pets). I’m such a bad liar! Lisa sat in the back with a big map spread out over top of Alli to help keep her hidden. Our plan was to camp one night in the ruins to get the best of both evening and morning light without the heat of the day. This also helped us by only having to pay one days entry fee, cheapskates that we are.

Temple V

Tikal truly is magical and for all the tourism focused on it, it holds itself well. They say only twenty percent of the ruins there have been uncovered. Looking out from the top of Temple IV you get an idea of the vastness of the city in it’s glory, every little “hill” you see is a buried ruin. That first evening we met a nice Vancouver couple Doug and Rebecca watching the sunset from Temple III. We wound up having dinner with them and, again, more conversation late into the evening.

While it was a wonderful time, this was a bad idea as Lisa and I had signed up for a guided tour first thing in the morning. …first thing being 4:30AM so that we could catch the sunrise from Temple IV. I felt like I was climbing again as the alarm woke us up in the dark of night. The tour was a bit disappointing as one of the guides bailed and left us as a group of forty with one guide. However, the temples hidden in the mist with the howler monkeys bellowing across the forest created a wonderfully mystical feel.

Feeling like bad tourists we left Tikal shortly after the tour to escape the heat. People talk about spending two or three days at Tikal but we could not tolerate the high heat and humidity. This time of year is definitely NOT the time to be in the Peten. Besides, we knew a nice beach nearby to retreat to! Jose welcomed us again at Playa Trinidad and we spent the afternoon in the hammocks out over the water, and in inner tubes on the water, recovering from all of the tourism.

Hammock self-portrait

From Tikal we moved back south and into the high-country and cooler temperatures. The roads were well paved for the most part but were tortuously slow and winding. The scenery was spectacular though and I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the next turn. Think six passes with elevation changes around 4000 feet for each!

We stayed a night in Coban at a tranquil little city park then pushed on to Chichicastenango where we visited their famous market. Here too we hired a guide to take us up to a Mayan ceremonial site. Part of our reason for doing this is that we have very few pictures of the Guatemalans themselves due to their shyness and sensitivity to cameras. With a hired guide we had permission to photograph the ceremony and the people. It was an amazing blend of the ancient and modern as a Pepsi can was offered on the alter was a request for a blessing on the family business.

Mayan blessing ceremony in Chichicastengango

From there we pushed on to Panajachel where friends had promised us excellent camping. True to form, at the Hotel Tzanjuyu we had a great spot lakeside all to ourselves. We spent several days there, mostly lounging by the lake but occasionally walking into town or taking a boat across to one of the other little villages. It was again, rather touristy compared to areas we had been in, but the natural splendor was quite remarkable. Think lake, a couple volcanoes, and great weather.

One highlight was going out to dinner at a locals word-of-mouth restaurant called Cordon Bleu. Tom, a long time expat from the States, had simply opened up his living room and balcony, put 5 tables in there and was serving food. He had started two of the most successful restaurants in town, sold them, and was now doing the low maintenance restaurant gig. A four course dinner for two, plus drinks, was $12!!! Lisa enjoyed meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy. The fare was non-Central American, home-style cooking. And we got a long-time local’s view of Panajachel, Guatemala, world politics, and living abroad.

Another highlight was the utter transformation in our haggling skills. Given the huge economic discrepancy between our standard of living and the normal one for folks down here, we typically don’t haggle much when buying something. However, we had been told you can haggle in Panajachel and better do so if you don’t want to get eaten alive. The commerce here is so aggressive that on the first day when Lisa showed interest in one street girls wares she was immediately swarmed by five little girls, all under 12, draping scarves over her shoulders and twining ribbons through her hair. So we learned and gingerly started the buying process by asking prices. Literally, they were outrageous. Wanting to get some gifts to take home, Lisa suggested that we offer 1/3 to 1/2 of the initial price…and be willing to walk away. Again, another shocking act of street shopping we had not managed before. Lisa usually felt too guilty to do so. But we came up with the plan and it worked and soon the merchants were yelling at us down the street, that yes, yes, they would take our price. When we returned to pay we noticed a look of respect in their eyes. We weren’t being had.

A mural about Guatemala’s civil war

Leaving Panajachel we were followed by a British couple in an MG convertible who were driving from Patagonia to Prudhoe Bay. We chatted briefly during a rest stop and they seemed quite the explorers from the Age of Empire with their scarfs and explorer hats. He said he bought the car new in 1967 and it was the only car he’d ever owned. Another example of all different kinds of people doing cool things out there in the world.

Fishing boats on the shore of Lake Atitlan

We drove the high road off of the Pan American Highway up into the mountains to our rendezvous with Todos Santos, the site of our first visit with Guatemala. This return held a lot of questions for us: Would it be as we remembered? Would our family remember us? What changes have happened in us in that time that will make our visit different? There’s a saying that you can never step in the same river twice because both you and the river have changed.

The landscape was still as majestical and mysterious as we remembered although modernized with cell towers sprouting from several moutaintops along the way. Our family remembered us, but just barely. It had been seven years without contact. We realized that while our life was hugely impacted by our visit to their town, their lives had continued pretty much unchanged. When we retold the story of Lisa’s fall after the sauna and subsequent hospitalization, they recalled the story…although some had thought she had died!

Lisa and Martina, our host “mom” of seven years ago

What struck us most was how stark and hard life was there. Of all our travels this year this place seemed the most desperate. The climate was cold and everyone seemed sick. Children’s faces had the red sunburned cheeks that you see at altitude and patches of warts covered the hands of many we met. The reality of our return was a bit depressing. Our family had stopped taking in tourists for home stays, probably it seemed, because they tired of them living in their space. So while our Spanish was much better than previously, as we sat in the family’s new kitchen with Martina cooking over the wood fire, the conversation was still in Mam, their native language, leaving us feeling isolated.

Then we were off to visit our old language school, where Lisa’s instructor greeted us with big hugs and asked how long we would be studying Spanish! Her welcome was heartwarming and she was disappointed we wouldn’t be staying long…chastizing us to leave more time next time we visit. It was an interesting distinction that this time we were tourists, whereas before we were students. It was gratifying to see that our Spanish had improved enough to engage in a long conversation about our trip and lives in the States.

As usual, Alli stole the show in town. With villagers walking up and asking us to give them Alli as a gift or offering to buy her. Only the local dogs didn’t like her. All in all, while we were glad we had come back, we also found ourselves eager to leave. The harshness of the lives of the family and the general isolation with them was hard to face. This place was among the poorest we had visited.

With some small gifts and a final farewell we trundled back down the mountain ready for Mexico. The relief of re-entering Mexico was surprising. It felt like home in away. Cleaner, better roads and signs, more development, and Spanish that was easier for us to understand. The locals also seemed more comfortable with foreigners and easier going. This may be because our first stop was San Cristobal de la Casas, a mountain town renowned for it’s indigenous color, hippie subculture and being the heart of the Zapatista revolution. In all we were glad to be there.

Tod trying on the local fashions in the market, Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Although we spent a week in San Cristobal, again , like in Panajachel, we found ourselves mostly just enjoying the good camping. Sure we walked into town once in awhile, took a few pictures of churches and even visited a museum. Lisa got excited about the Mayan medicine institute. However, we never went out to the outlying villages and mostly we hung out in the campground on the grass in the sun chatting with other van travelers.

These two things have been fairly rare on this trip. Sitting in the sun has been rare we have spent most of the trip hiding from it. As a matter of fact our tans our rather pathetic for having so much time in the tropics. San Cristobal though is at such a high altitude that it is pleasantly cool during the days and can get a might chilly at night, the sun is a welcomed guest. The other oddity was meeting others traveling by car, van or RV. After 5 months of only seeing the occasional “land cruiser”, the name given our types by sailors, we now were in a campground with several of them. On top of that some of them were Americans, another rarity down here where most land cruisers are Canadian and the backpackers are mostly European. The atmosphere was perfect, relaxed with lots of music and again, conversations late into the night.

It’s been an exciting and varied stretch of road for the trip and now we are eager to get back on familiar ground in Oaxaca. Also it’s time for us to catch up on our sleep in anticipation of more late nights ahead when Delone, Lisa’s dad, visits!

Buen Viaje (Good Travels!)