Tod and Lisa’s Year of Adventure

Life on the Road to Central America

The Borderlands January 29, 2008

Filed under: Mexico,Stories — todandlisa @ 7:23 am

She kept her distance at first, perched high up on the bank in the shade of the bridge. Occasionally, she would shout down something that sounded like a comment or a question, but it was hard to make out the words between my erratic Spanish and the murmur of the nearby river. Besides, my focus was intent on unwinding the broken belt from around the engine fan. Lisa was the diligent assistant, handing out tools and pointed advice throughout the operation.

Under the bridge was a great spot to work, shaded by the tall span with a flat gravel spot to spread out on. We had noticed the day before, in El Salvador, that the air conditioning, which, despite its emergency-only status, has been getting more use lately, wasn’t blowing correctly. Slow to catch on, today, in Honduras we realized the batteries weren’t charging correctly and finally caught on that we had broken a fan belt passing a slow truck on a hill somewhere.


The belt change went well, with only a minimum of banged knuckles and cursing. Throughout the process the little girl, our audience of one, became increasingly bolder, creeping down the embankment with a wary eye on Allie, who was too distracted waiting for me to throw a ball. The girl looked about seven or eight, slender as a wand with enormous almond eyes. Her mother must have been one of the women, not far away, on the banks of the river, washing their clothes.

With the procedure finished our little friend was now down to the van, asking Lisa questions, as always, about whether the dogs bite and where we were from. We noticed the kids here were a bit more shy than we’d seen elsewhere, obviously not used to the sight of gringos puttering around beside their river. Like children everywhere though, once she warmed to us she was a bundle of life and curiosity.


Allie and I took the opportunity to take a swim in the river…me to clean up, Allie just because she can’t stay out of the water. She always amazes kids and adults alike with her stick fetching, rock-chewing antics. She’s crazy about the water and even at the surf spots the surfers drop their cool enough to laugh at her diving headlong into the crashing waves and riding them out. She and Taku are our little ambassadors and a great way to meet people.


Tod and Allie head out for some fun near La Libertad, El Salvador

The crowd at the bank was growing and Lisa was busy taking pictures and handing out our Idaho postcards and school supplies as little gifts. We realized though that we needed to move on quickly before the whole neighborhood showed up. Besides it was 10AM and we still had another border to cross.


Tod and Betty pose in front of the first hotel stop of the trip. In Guatemala the $12 for a room with air conditioning was well worth it.

Five borders in seven days. We are steadily making our way along the PanAmerican highway through the frustrating bureaucracies towards our destination., Panama City. Right now we are just outside San Jose, Costa Rica with just one more border to cross into Panama. It may sound fast but we’re not setting any speed records. A fellow we met at the Costa Rican border yesterday had left Canada only nine days earlier. For us though, this is certainly a breakneck pace. We often feel exhausted, even though we take a break every few days, unwinding on beaches in El Salvador and Nicaragua, even a few days of hiking here in Costa Rica.

We had been warned that the complexities of getting a vehicle through all these countries could be daunting. It certainly is perplexing and frustrating with seemingly little effort made on the part of the officials to streamline the process. Central American countries are legendary for their byzantine bureaucracies. Tim Cahill theorized in his book Road Fever; an account of his drive from Tierra Del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay; that the bureaucracies started with the Spaniards. These soldiers had just conquered the a new world and were now being asked to ship all the wealth back to Spain for the king to pay his debts. By creating all sorts of little procedural hurdles to cross, the conquistadors ensured they got their little bite of the pie before it left for Spain. In fact the term for bribe in Spanish is “la mordida” which literally is “the bite”.

Betty picks up a friend

I try to keep the theory in mind when I’m sent for the third time to get copies of my stamped passport, with a this receipt, with my drivers license all in a certain sequence, on one side of one page of paper. Lisa, with all of her organizational skills and natural charm, has proved more effective at getting us through quickly. I will occasionally just start snapping at people so I’m usually assigned to guarding the van with the dogs. When I negotiated the process into Costa Rica it took almost four hours but I was proud that we managed to avoid a couple of major scams. We found trying to do it together led to too much confusion as in El Amatillo, one of the most notorious border crossings in Central America. We breezed through in an hour but at a steep price. Our guides (known as tramitadores) had given us the usual run around and in the confusion we managed to pay the same fees twice


Allie likes to help Lisa keep a look out for potholes

Yes, guides. The level of challenge is such that the governments have created a nice little cottage industry for their constituents, many of whom make a good living leading baffled folks like Lisa and I through the borders. The problem is that the guides have more scams and ploys than the officials do. In fact we’ve had only one border official approach us for a bribe and only halfheartedly. He ask for us to pay him and we just nodded our heads yes and kept driving. Unfortunately though, all of our tramitadors but one have tried to scam us in one way or another.

Usually the scam revolves around there being a hitch in the process that they can smooth over for us. “The computers are down but if you give me thirty bucks, I’ll pay the right guys and you won’t have to wait two hours.” We’ve found that if, despite our guides protests, we go talk to the officials themselves they usually have no knowledge of any computers going down. A French fellow behind us on the Mexico/Guatemalan border got taken for $100 dollars because he got a “special” stamp to get his car through all the Central American countries. When we compared notes later his stamp was the same as ours that we had payed $12 for.


The kids down here are occasionally feral

So why use them? Well theoretically you don’t have to, and at the quieter borders we won’t. Most times though, they are worth the five dollars we pay them just to keep all of the other tramatidors from hassling us every step of the way. And, even with speaking some Spanish, there have been a few borders that I don’t know how we would have done it without their help. The dogs add another layer of complexity and often the agriculture department, where they get registered, is hidden in some far office in the border compound. On whole we’ve figured out a system for working with them that seems to get us through efficiently without us losing our shirts.

So, in all it’s been an exciting and exhausting week. We’re looking forward to our arrival in Panama City where we get to slow down again and start being a bit more touristy. Lisa will be working again for a week while there and then we’ll start making our way more slowly back through the countries we’ve just passed. This time taking the back roads, seeing the sights and crossing borders at the quieter posts.

Taku is still loving life

Despite the challenges I still find it hard to resent the people too much. We’ve seen so much poverty here that I’m not sure what I would do myself if I were in their shoes. Scamming tourists for a few bucks may not be ethical but it puts food on the table. I also wouldn’t let the hassles deter someone from coming down. The wonderful and generous people we have met have far outweighed the shady characters. Besides with the right attitude the crossings can actually be amusing! Pretty rarely though. Until next time!

Allie swims out for one last ride in Nicaragua


Birthday on the Bay January 15, 2008

Filed under: Mexico — todandlisa @ 5:28 pm

It amazing how quickly things can change around you when you are on the move.

One evening we are  dining beachside at an tiny upscale star resort we discovered while looking for a campsite. The next we are eating in a fish shack at a family run restraunt, the only tourists around.  By the way the fish shack had the better food!  Another truism about Mexico is that you can’t always go by appearances.  Lisa was a bit dismayed though when her fish arrived head, fins and all.  I guess we’re still squeamish gringos when it comes down to it.

We’re in another resort community (Bahias de Huatulco) now, hoping to find sushi to celebrate Lisa’s birthday tonight.  A good spanish goof we had  today was Lisa telling a local that today was the day she was hatched! I must say though, her Spanish has progressed much faster than min.

As we move down the coast we are driving more and have less of the “free time” we had in Oaxaca but still are doing well.  Lisa spent an hour and half practicing with her new guitar (a Christmas/birthday gift) on the beach while I logged some hammock time and played with Allie.   I guess you don’t have to worry about us.

 The previous few days were used to adjust to coastal living (heat and beach towns) in the Puerto Angel area.  Lisa and I found it a bit too much of the hip and hippie scene with the nude beachs and lots of young international travellers.  Our first day there we had a tad bit over exuberent German woman literally climb into our van in her eagerness to show us were to go.  Generally we like this kind of thing but this was a bit over the top as I was only pulling over to use the bathroom!  There were quite a few intelligible stoners around too but I guess it is a surf spot.  When we finally did find “the spot” to camp on the beach we were content until we saw the band setting up in the palapa next to the van.  We were relieved when they finally stopped their reggae jams at 2:30AM.

We were happy the next day  to find a quiet little village (Ventanilla) just north of the whole place that allowed us to camp there.   We had the beach to ourselves that evening and got to speak a lot more Spanish.  Betty did get stuck in the sand though as we tried to pull into and out of our campsite put plenty of local young guys were on hand to push us out both times.

Time to log off so we can go find that restraunt.  Next week should find us further down the coast, perhaps Guatemala or El Salvador even?  We’ll post photos soon but as we rode our bikes into town  we don’t have the camera with us now.  Adios!


Moving On January 6, 2008

Filed under: Mexico — todandlisa @ 3:05 pm

The old timers laugh as we tell them of our plans to move on. “Yeah, we heard that two months ago.” is what they are saying. They’re right, Oaxaca has been a hard place to leave. As we pack I wonder what are the aspects of this community that have made it so easy to stay. Is it the perfect climate and the easy access to mountain trails. Or maybe the cultural “safety” of being amongst other North Americans at the trailer park and having access to wireless internet? Perhaps it’s the local indigenous culture with it’s myriad of fiestas. Timing is important too and after 6 months on the move Lisa and I were ready to ground into a place. Mostly though, I think it comes down to the people. Since our first days in the city we have felt welcome here. Whether it’s Kate greeting us at the trailer park in San Felipe or the warm smile of the candy vendor on the town square, it is the people of this place, more than any other thing that has kept us here for these three months.

So what have we done with all this time?

As Suzanne, one of the Canadian regulars at the trailer park has said: “It seems by the time I’ve brushed my teeth the morning is over.” Time is different here.

Slowing down is an interesting thing. It seems to involve getting out of your own way long enough to let things evolve on their own. Letting go of the list of things “to do” and experiencing things that “happen”. Trust me, the “to do” list can be just as long here on the road as it can back in the world of work and responsibilities. I’ve seen it in myself as well as other travelers who are hurrying through on their way to fulfilling whatever experiences they think they should be having.

As the time perspective has shifted, and it took a good few weeks at first, I’ve found things rising to the surface within myself. Emotions and thoughts I’ve been afraid to look at, conversations with Lisa that were hard but we’ve needed to have. The window of what is possible has broadened as well. I realize we all have a lot more options in life when we look up from our daily tasks and gaze further down the road to see the possibilities of our future. It’s scary though, knowing we have that much power in our own lives. Knowing that our excuses are just that.

One of the things Lisa and I have enjoyed most here are the spontaneous interactions that happens through out the day. A morning greeting can turn into a two hour conversation about winters in France or the volatility of the Japanese Yen. More often it’s just light chit-chat though, and watching the dogs play. There’s an informal routine here of making the rounds in the morning to see what folks have planned for the day then checking in again in the evening to see how things went.

“I’m headed up to La Senora’s, need anything?” is a common start to a conversation. Whether or not you make the trip to the little market a block away is irrelevant. The senora will be there tomorrow as well. These seemingly trivial rituals and interactions have an important role in connecting us as a community. It’s sad that I realize I’m often to busy in my “other life” to participate.

Tonight there will be a gathering on the lawn in front of Kate and Del’s to give us a send off. Our friends want to say goodbye and, although I’m bad at it, it is another one of those important pieces. We’ll have a hearty meal of meatloaf and potatoes and afterwards there will be a fire on the porch while they give us last minute advice about border crossings and places to visit. The predictability of it is warming as we face the anxieties inherent in moving on.

So where to now? Well, inspite of all my musings about schedules and goals, we still would like to visit some of the other countries down here. The plan for the moment is to make our way slowly but directly to Panama City, our intended turn around point, then meander the back roads for a few months as we make our return. Time again is relative and it seems, now that we are half way in our “year of adventure”, that it is rather short.

The sadness of leaving is lightened as we know we will visit again on our return in the spring. It will be wetter and some of the snowbirds will be gone but most of our friends will still be here. And that is the important thing.