Perfect Enough

Eternal Spring

Hola from Panama City, Panama —

We arrived in Panama 2 weeks ago and it’s been a busy time for us.  Having established a plan to try various locations in Panama before we figure out where we might ultimately want to settle, and since we entered Panama from its western boundary, it made sense for us to start our residency in Panama in the area of Boquete in Chiriqui Province.  Boquete makes sense for many reasons aside from the proximity — for starters, it is beautiful.  Set in the mountains of western Panama, the Boquete area is very popular with expats (mostly from the US and Canada) because it IS so beautiful and because the weather is described as “eternal spring,” with temperatures between 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit daily, year round.  It is a place of many micro climates and Boquete is where the country’s coffee is grown as well as where a large variety of fruit and vegetables thrive. Boquete also appeals to expats because it is a smaller town where people can develop a sense of community.  It appeals to us for those reasons and more, not the least of which is the friends we made there 4 years ago when visiting who have been invaluable in terms of their support, their encouragement and the giving of their time and familiarity with the area.  We might have survived without Holly and Scott (and Luana and Bond) but it would not have been as rich an experience.

Once we arrived in Boquete and rented a storage facility to use for the goods that had been piled in truck and trailer for the 60k miles of the journey here, we set about to lighten our load, repair things on the truck and in Wolfie, and to start to establish our first 6 months in Panama.  We traveled to the nearby city of David to join the local warehouse club called Price Smart, traded in our “Central American” SIM card purchased from Claro in Guatemala for a Panamanian phone SIM card from the same company, purchased auto parts needed for brake work on Gertie, scouted out major grocery stores to get a lay of the land, took a road tour (led by Scott and Holly) of the various Boquete-area micro climates, celebrated Roque’s birthday, responded to real estate advertisements and after visiting several possible rentals, committed to a lovely single-story home in the community of Los Molinos in Alto Boquete for 6 months, had meals out in Boquete in restaurants and at friends’ homes, got the bikes repaired and more.

At the end of the first week, we had a 6 month lease in hand starting on September 1 which gave us several weeks to start the legal processes necessary to make Sharon, Gertie and Wolfie permanent residents and so, we headed to the capital city. We learned quickly what we intuitively believed before we got to Panama City:  things take longer than we might have hoped and we needed to take things one little step at a time.

Patience is a Virtue

Here’s an example of one day in which we accomplished one tiny bureaucratic step toward permanent residence.  To get the pensionado visa that Sharon hopes of have, she needs a FBI background check newer than 18 months old.  Because of the 18 month requirement, we knew we could not bring an FBI background check along on the trip since it was likely to be “expired” by the time we arrived in Panama.  Step 1 to obtaining the background check is to obtain fingerprints to send to the FBI (again, no older than 18 months).  The good news is that we can get fingerprints done in Panama without returning to the US and we set out to do that on Tuesday but the long line at the DIJ (the local equivalent of the FBI) dissuaded us and we decided to return later. We couldn’t return on Wednesday and so we got up early on Thursday so we could arrive at DIJ before its 7 am opening time, at which point we were told to return at 8 when the fingerprinting office opened (the long lines being for other things that didn’t apply to us).  When we returned and were escorted to meet the fingerprint tech, she asked if we brought the fingerprinting form we needed. Of course we didn’t have the form! (Later, it clearly made sense that we would have to bring our own form – how first world of us to thing that Panama would have the FBI Form FD-258 on hand).  So, back to the hotel during rush hour we went – first to print the form and then to make sure that the form on plain paper — rather than the standard blue cardstock — was acceptable.  We printed the form, traveled back to DIJ and were finished with the fingerprinting part of the exercise by 11:30.  All good. Well, except that we cannot pick up the form until the Police Chief signs it and that will take at least 3 business days, taking us to Tuesday, at the earliest.  Once the fingerprint card is ready for pick up, we must bring it to the Panamanian Minister of Foreign Affairs who can authenticate the signatures. Once this is done, we can then forward the card to the FBI and the process will continue from there.  Thus, one set of fingerprints will take us about a week to accomplish.

This is not anyone’s “fault.”  Had we known what we know now, we could have taken care of this on the first day we arrived in Panama City and likely, we would have accomplished this task by the time we were originally scheduled to leave.  But, as many wise people have said before me, sometimes you don’t even know the questions to ask let alone how to get the answers that you need. Our story of the fingerprinting is like tons of stories that we’ve heard from people we’ve met along our travels such as people from outside the US who cannot get a “transit visa” to travel from Mexico City to Australia via LAX requiring rerouting around the world, literally, to get where they needed to go (a transit visa is a special visa required simply to enter an airport in the United States which, in this case, was denied to a Nicaraguan youth who was traveling to Australia to attend school); Europeans whose US visas would expire before they could drive from the lower 48 to Alaska and back (the visas continue to run while they are in Canada which makes travel to Alaska virtually impossible); a German couple whose German-prescribed medicine sat in Canadian customs for so long that the cost to obtain the prescription medicine (banned in Canada but legally prescribed in Germany) was greater than a trip back home to get more; a Dutch couple who had US permanent residency cards that they could NOT give back no matter how many US officials and offices they tried.  Bureaucracies exist everywhere and we are pretty certain that all can be excruciatingly difficult and tedious.

Tiny but Mighty

Notwithstanding the small bureaucratic headaches that have been a part of our first couple of weeks in Panama, our time here has been wonderful.  For such a tiny country, Panama has amazing diversity – of races, of religions, of cultures, of geography and biodiversity. There are many things here that are new to us (or new again) and that we like:  cafeterias that serve a lovely and wide variety of Panamanian dishes at inexpensive prices; this delicious Panamanian fried bread called hojaldras; inexpensive bottles of wine; good (and free) highways; Aleve; Kosher grocery stores with speciality food items, potable water in many locations, really nice grocery stores with huge selections of local and international products; the best and fastest cell and data service that we’ve had on this trip; inexpensive cell data plans, places where you can literally see the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean at the same time; the best bagels we have had outside select locations in the US; restrooms with both toilet seats and toilet paper, no headaches converting currency and discounts for jubilados (retirees) at museums, restaurants and more.

In Panama City, we have eaten Popeye’s fried chicken and Vietnamese pho and Japanese sushi and we just missed dim sum today by a half an hour.  We’ve also had sancocho, and arroz con pollo, and ropa vieja and patacóns (the Panamanian version of tostones). And we enjoyed some of the most innovative cuisine of the whole trip at lunch on Wednesday at Fonda Lo Que Hay in Casco Viejo – a restaurant offshoot of Dónde Jose (where we dined 4 years ago) which is a funky casual restaurant where former local gang members are taught to cook and run a restaurant.  Oh, and of course we’ve had great coffee.

We have seen many changes in Panama City in the 4 years since we last visited and have enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods of El Cangrejo, Avenida Balboa, Casco Viejo, Paitilla, Amador, Albrook and Costa del Este.  We visited Roque’s home in Las Cumbres and the spot (now vacant) where his primary school was located and the Rio Abajo neighborhood that was home to family members when he was a youth here. We’ve walked the Cinta Costera for miles and enjoyed the incredible vibrancy of Panama City’s “malecón,” with soccer courts, weight lifting stations, bike paths and playgrounds – a sort of Venice, California meets GW Bike Trail meets Washington Square Park kind of place with huge sweeping vistas of the city from pedestrian walkways that cross from Avenida Balboa to the Cinta Costera.

We learned, at the Biodiversity Museum – a gorgeous Frank Gehry designed museum – that there is more arboreal diversity in 1 hectare of land in Panama than in all of North America combined and that the isthmus that is current day Panama was a literal land bridge that formed millions of years ago, closing the gaps that existed between the continents of current day North and South Americas, allowing flora and fauna to move north to south and south to north in ways that are unique on the planet. We also learned that Panama, in addition to being nearly hurricane proof is also nearly earthquake proof because of the way that the tectonic plates have formed around Panama.

From our friends who have expatriated to countries outside the United States, we have oft heard the mantra that there is no perfect place and we this has echoed in our heads as we have wandered along the 60,000 miles of this journey.  In our earlier blog posts, we described why we decided to expatriate to Panama and what we hoped we would find there.  Along the road, we evaluated spots in the US outside our last home in Washington, DC to see if there were places where we might enjoy if we decide to return to the US.  Through Canada, Mexico and Central America, our antennae were tuned to signals that called out to us in a “pick me, pick me” voice.  While our list of “must haves” was, in many respects, rather generic (safety, proximity to loved ones, stability of governance and economy, etc) we also had specific requirements that were more challenging to meet.  Our comfort as an inter-racial, inter-ethnic and inter-religious couple who have retired from the work force is, we realize now, a profoundly more difficult thing than we might have thought when we set out 19+ months ago.  For those of you who have ever watched the HGTV show called House Hunters, you know that when a family has 4 “must haves” on the list, it is inevitable that the family will find 3 but rarely all 4 of its essentials.   Maybe that’s another way to describe the fact that there is no perfect place.  A wise person once told us that one’s life is like a table and that the legs of a table represent various aspects of one’s life: one leg might represent career, and another might represent family with the other 2 representing social and health. A table is most stable with 4 legs but can stand solidly with 3.  Fewer than that, the table topples.  Maybe we can only ever get 3 out of 4 legs on solid ground but fewer than that, we know we gotta keep moving.  The criteria are rarely literally limited to 4 and it is a more intuitive than analytical process oftentimes.  But you know it when it’s there, when it’s solid enough, or when it’s not.  And perhaps that will be our definition of “perfect enough.”

Stay tuned as we discover more about our new home and whether it will be our “perfect enough.”

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Ah, the flowers  (courtesy of Holly and Scott)
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Driving to Panama City – scenery and great roads
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Pedestian Walkway to the Cinta Costera
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Our first Panama Rainbow
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Skyline from the Cinta Costera
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Skyline from Casco Viejo
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More skyline views 
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Skyline over the marina in Amador

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Tennis along the Cinta Costera
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Fonda Lo Que Hay
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How can you not smile at this?

 

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Our 18 Months of Dancing Lessons

The Pink Lake at Las Coloradas, Yucatán, Mexico

Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God. ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Our departure from Mexico was as sweet as its entry, with a beautiful camping location at Misión Surf Mexico on the beach at Puerto Madero in Chiapas. Misión Surf Mexico provides a loving, secure home for children of all ages who have been abused, neglected, orphaned or abandoned. The beach front property where we stayed was built to create a surf and swim school for the children in the care of Misión Mexico and the small hotel was built to provide a source of funding and skills training for the kids. Alan and Pamela Skuse, the Misión’s directors, left their home in Australia for a year of volunteering at a the orphanage and that year turned into 18 spent in service to the abused and neglected children in the care of Misión Mexico. It felt like kismet led us to this place, where we could speak, from experience and knowledge, about potential resources for the Misión to explore to further and aid their mission. Purpose-driven people are always inspiration for us (particularly those oriented toward the care of children) and we left Mexico to cross into Guatemala filled with hope and a feeling of well being that caring people are still making a difference in this world.

Our 7+ months in Mexico were wonderful and it appears that our experiences and complete enjoyment are in sync with those of every overland traveler we have followed. Pan American Highway travelers write glowingly about their experiences while in Mexico and many, like us, seek more time in Mexico than the initial 6 month visa permits. Once in Mexico, it is easy to see why: the people are warm and friendly, the food is fresh, delicious and inexpensive, the sense of history vast and the culture of its indigenous people rich.

Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves. ~ Henry David Thoreau

Leaving Mexico to enter Central America gave us a perfect opportunity to reflect on what we have learned since leaving on this road trip and how the trip may have changed us. Our reflection was aided, we think, by our return to the US for a week in June and 5 weeks spent in a brick and mortar condo while in the Yucatán— experiences that shone a light on our nomadic life in Wolfie. However you lead your life – whether in an apartment in a high rise building in New York City or a condo in a sunbelt state or a house in a suburban or rural setting – one’s life in one’s home becomes so familiar that it can feel that everyone lives the way you do. The same is true when living in a 16’ travel trailer. When juxtaposed against life in a condo in Playa del Carmen, a very gringo-friendly community in the Yucatán Peninsula, as well as life in the US, particularly as we were leaving Mexico to enter Guatemala, we were able to see, in a fresher way, how our current life compares and what we have learned about ourselves and the world along the way.

In no particular order, here are some of our reflections –

We really love our nomadic life. We love that we have the opportunity to change our backyard every day if we want. While in the US and Canada, the change of backyard idea reflected the immense natural beauty of those two countries and our ability to experience that beauty in many up-front-and-personal ways, stopping at night along a rest stop that allowed for 360 degree views of glaciers or along a stream with a waterfall framed in our picture window or on a bluff on California 1 listening to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. While in Mexico, the concept shifted to references oriented more to culture and history. For us, it is endlessly stimulating and fascinating to learn new things – not just the learning that comes from visits to museums and exhibits but from absorbing the local culture through all of our senses — how a place smells and sounds, the way that people interact with each other on the road, on the street and in their neighborhoods, the individual character each community exhibits — all of this is food for the brain and for the soul. Life on the road is undeniably challenging even if we have gotten used to many of the challenges. But we haven’t really tired of it — generally– and wonder if once we reach Panama, we will be feel comfortable settling down. We don’t think that this is because we cannot sit still – rather it feels like it is an experience more like reading a great book or listening to a beautiful piece of music. You just don’t really want it to end.

One’s destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things. ~ Henry Miller

We have learned that it takes a while to get comfortable with new places and to find our sea legs. Leaving the US for Canada was just as unfamiliar as it was for us to leave the US to enter Mexico and once in Mexico, leaving the Baja for the Mainland of Mexico. Despite the language similarity between the US and Canada, traveling as we are traveling meant adjusting to many new things in Canada (roads, camping, technology, systems of measurement, etc.). The same was true when we entered Mexico, Cuba and again in Guatemala, where we have only spent several days as of this writing. On more than one occasion, while things felt largely unchanged just over a border, it wasn’t long before subtle differences manifested — road signs, road conditions, crowding, parking conditions and customs, language usage differences, and scenery are just some of the small things we see changing as we enter a new place. Perhaps this is different for overlanders who have crossed many more borders than us but we doubt it — no matter where you go, even within a single country, it takes time to get comfortable and we have learned to be patient with ourselves as we stumble through and develop a new awareness.

We have learned to trust in ourselves and to be open to discovering that our experiences may be different than others who have gone before us. The trip has reinforced to us who we are and what we hoped to gain from these travels. Many of the Pan American Highway travelers (we call them the Travelers) are very different from us – they are generally younger (and mor fit), generally traveling on a budget more restrictive than ours, often traveling with rigs that are more Mad Max than I Love Lucy, with an orientation toward adventure and off-road travel. Many have a timeline for travel (or budget) that may require a faster pace or a travel orientation toward South America that is missing from our itinerary. We have gained invaluable amounts of information from fellow Travelers and it is likely that we would never have visited some of our favorite places in Mexico had it not been for the suggestions of many — Zacatecas, Patzcuaro and Zihuatanejo among them. We have listened to various recommendations of what to do and what not to miss, where to eat and what to avoid but we have learned that we have our own tastes, our own sensibilities, our own budget and our own lens through which we experience life and we need to honor our differences. Our favorite foods and restaurants might be different than those loved by others who we love and respect. Our sense of adventure may mean less mountain climbing, off road travel and beach camping than others but may mean more time spent in urban environments and inside museums. We have learned that we need to respect our instincts and our internal voices and be true to that over what might be expected of us.

We have learned so much more about the world than we knew before we left. It is not just a matter of seeing more with our own eyes – it is also a matter of consciously making it a priority to gather information about the places where we are visiting that is both historical and current. The history of a place gives context and greater understanding while contemporaneous information gives us the means to travel safely as well visit places that will interest us and expand our understanding and knowledge. There are so many times along this trip when we have looked at one another and said “I had no idea.” We visited numerous places while in Mexico with populations over 500,000 which names we had never heard of before entering Mexico, many of them hundreds of years older (in terms of European settlement) than any part of the US. We had no idea. We learned that 90% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the US-Canadian border. Again, we had no idea. We now know that in the highlands of Guatemala, people living at elevations higher than a mile need to dress for cool weather, no matter that Guatemala is thousands of miles closer to the equator than the US. We know as well to seek out all forms of information – US newspapers and media outlets, travel books and country guides often do not provide enough information for us to understand what we want and need to know.

We have learned that we can lead a simpler life, in a smaller space than we ever thought possible, in constant 24/7 company with each other and yet not get on each other’s nerves. We have learned how to create personal space when only several inches are between us. We have learned how to navigate the art of navigating in foreign countries without completely melting down. We have learned that we love the time actually on the road as much if not more than the time when we are not driving. We have learned that we can make friendships along the road and maintain relationships with our friends from “back home” and our family. We have learned that our love and respect for each other has grown deeper because of the shared experiences and feelings of accomplishment we have developed along the way. We have learned how to share the responsibilities of our travel life and how to modify and shift those responsibilities from time to time so that no one task ever feels like it is a burden on the other. We have learned how to be strong for the other when one of us is weakening and then how to flip it around when the roles change. We continue to learn how to be our best selves with each other and for ourselves. In short, we have learned that we continue to learn every day and that this process is at the heart of what is making this trip more uniquely special than we could ever have imagined.

Let the dancing lessons continue.

Dime (Spanish for Tell Me)

Playa (del Carmen) With A Full Deck

Happy (belated) Mother’s Day from Playa del Carmen, Mexico!

We returned from Cuba on Friday, retrieved Wolfie from storage near the airport and moved into a lovely 2 bedroom condo in El Cielo in Playa del Carmen where we will stay until we return to the States in late June for a wedding. Since campgrounds in the areas near Cancun/Playa del Carmen are pricey and because we decided to extend our stay in Mexico in order to accommodate our travel plans for the wedding, we decided to stay in a brick-and-mortar home here after we learned we could do so nearly as affordably as staying in Wolfie. In our condo, we have all the comforts of our former home in the States (internet, satellite TV, oven, dishwasher, washer/dryer, ac) plus swimming pools and nearby beach. With apologies to Wolfie, she just didn’t stand a chance by comparison. So, we will see how it feels to stay put for a little more than a month as we live the gringo life here in Playa.

Dime*

About our time in Cuba —  Spoiler alert: we were not huge fans. For those of you who have been and who loved it, we will try to explain more about our reactions and why ours might differ from yours.

It is important to understand how we decided to travel to Havana and how those decisions may have affected our time in Cuba. We chose to stay in an AirBnB in a private room with a Cuban family. Ordinarily, we select AirBnBs only when we have the entire place to ourselves but for Havana, we thought it would enrich our experiences to have access to the insights of locals. We selected a neighborhood called Vedado based on our research. We think that both of these decisions were good ones for us. Our AirBnB host turned out to be a real gem – she is an 86 year old who has clear recollections of time before and after the revolution and who inhabits a grand home of many rooms and a gorgeous back yard on a street where the late Fidel Castro once lived. Her home was very large and several family members lived with her, as well as a couple of household staff members. The home now boasts of 2 AirBnB rooms, each with a private bath and a tiny kitchenette. Our hosts did everything they could to make our stay comfortable.

Cruise or Tour?

It’s likely that most US citizens who have traveled to Cuba have visited on an organized tour or by cruise ship – in fact, this was the only way a traveler from the States could go during the “early” days of the Cuban Thaw. For those, the charms of Old Havana (Havana Vieja) are obvious – the old architecture, the charm of the horse drawn carriages and the convertible antique automobiles, the gorgeous, gleaming white Capitol building and downtown museums are undeniably captivating. Restaurants in Old Havana are cheap by US standards and serving sizes are almost embarrassingly large. The areas near the Malecon (waterfront walkway), the old forts, renovated train station and cruise terminal are walkable and lovely.

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Hotel Nacional sans Mafia
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Che’s image near Plaza de la Revolución
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Havana Vieja street
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Near John Lennon Park
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Havana Vieja
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Melia Cohiba rest room
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Havana Vieja
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El Capitolio
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Antique cars aplenty
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And more
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The Prado, Havana Vieja
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Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón
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Wonder if these tourists thought we were Cubans?
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Templo Beth Shalom Synagogue

When you move just a couple of feet beyond this area – in fact, just a couple of blocks within Old Havana, you begin to see the deterioration and decay of this once obviously-thrilling city. Buildings are literally crumbling and streets and sidewalks are pocked with large gaps, holes, cracks and more. And while there are clearly new building or renovation projects underway (or so it appeared from the signs displayed on scaffolding), much of what we saw all over Havana looked like it had not been touched since 1959 — everything needed a coat of paint, some significant patching, replacement window panes and more. The furnishings in our AirBnB house and in the places we visited were similar – kind of frozen in time. Things were old and out of date, and out of style and often in need of significant repair. This is not the “fault” of our hosts or the average Cuban. We learned that nearly every space is furnished with something recycled and the Cubans impressively recycle everything from furniture to linens to plumbing parts and clothes. In the end, the “your junk is my treasure” approach results in an aging and tattered sort of ambiance to nearly everything.

No Credit Extended

US citizens traveling to Cuba must do so with cash only – US credit cards are not accepted and banks and ATMs will not dispense cash so we needed to take what we thought we would need for the week. (Beware, as well, that when we attempted to access financial information from our Charles Schwab account, our account was locked, apparently required by US regulations rather than in reaction to a fraud concern).  We found this to be a significant challenge, at least emotionally, since we didn’t want to run out of money and our budgeting was based on scant information about how much various things would cost. Our budgeting concerns were exacerbated by being thwarted from some of our standard travel practices such as making our own breakfasts in the mornings; typically, we go to a market and pick up fruit, eggs, coffee, etc. and eat and sip leisurely in the morning as we consider the day ahead. But shopping in Havana in local markets is unlike anything we have experienced over our time on the road. In Cuba, families are given rations for many food staples (eggs, sugar, rice, beans, milk, etc.) and sources of those kinds of food do not appear to be available for sale to tourists. The markets had little on the shelves other than jars of instant coffee, cans of beer and lentils, Barilla pasta, rum and cigarettes. Panaderias (bakeries) existed but the bread and “pastries” were flavorless even if cheap. In short, we were out of luck with an attempt to cook breakfast in our room, despite the thoughtfully provided kitchenette there. We opted instead to pay our AirBnB host for morning breakfasts consisting of coffee, reconstituted powdered milk, eggs and ham.

Our need to budget our cash affected our choices while in Havana. While we were offered overnight trips to the countryside, the $60 an hour price tag for a car and driver or the $180 a day rental car rate meant that we yielded to our concern about running out of cash. Additionally, in a country where the average person earns about $20 a month, we couldn’t help but be concerned about whether these touring options would isolate us from real Cuban life. So, we stuck to exploring Havana only. And nearly all of it by foot.

Information Void

Havana has a bus system but no published bus routes or maps or signs at bus stops. Further, while we told that while the bus was a cheap travel option, they were so jam-packed that many passed us at bus stops. It seems that Cubans deal with this frequently – we saw huge numbers of people waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting) at bus stops (and nearly everything else). Lines are omnipresent — everywhere and for nearly everything. So, off on foot we went, walking an average of 7-10 miles a day, leaving droplets of perspiration from one end of Havana to the other. It is, after all, tropical and hot and humid. When we had walked our last centimeter and our legs could barely carry us onward, we did relent a couple of times and took cabs – because they are unregulated, we learned quickly (after one disaster) to negotiate an agreed upon price before we entered, whether it was a tiny mototaxi, antique convertible, or falling-apart Russian made taxi.

Other things that we have come to rely upon on our travels were also largely unavailable to us in Cuba. Access to internet is very limited and quite expensive. Whether tourist or local, one must buy an internet card from the national telecommunications provider, good for an hour of internet ($4.95 an hour) and usable only at designated wifi spots in the city (mostly near hotels and public parks). Those spots became instantly recognizable because there were always large numbers of Cubans glued to their phone screens, gathered in these locations. We learned that Cuban cell phone “plans” do not include data – only voice and text; to use them for access to the internet, Cubans need to purchase internet cards at the same price as tourists. For us, not having the ability to use the internet or phone data for research, museum addresses and hours, cultural events or just random questions felt isolating. We have to admit that we have become, like nearly everyone we’ve seen along our travels, from large Canadian cities to small Mexican towns, reliant upon the information superhighway and we didn’t love being virtually without this resource.

It was, therefore, little surprise seeing folk clustered around wifi spots, eyes glued to screens. We are not sure how many bona fide TV channels exist on Cuban televisions but we saw only 2: one with general programming and the other with sports (including, on one night, a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game). The general programming station had some children’s entertainment, some Cuban history, a Fred Astair-Ginger Rogers movie on one occasion, and some of what seemed to be “news” programming. We never saw a news stand or a magazine and we saw only one Cuban newspaper being sold on one particular morning at one particular bus stop. Clearly, information is at a premium. When we did access the internet, we were able to read the Washington Post, NYT, and other news outlets so we assume that Cubans may as well, but we are not completely sure. When we went to buy a local SIM card to have in our spare unlocked phone for emergencies, Roque waited in line for over a half an hour, was put through a rigorous set of questions by the national phone company worker, had his passport photocopied and the SIM card registered to him as well as the phone with strict instructions limiting outgoing calls to one a day. We tried using it once but the call failed.

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When you see a cluster of people such as this one near John Lennon Park, wifi must be nearby

What We Loved

There were some things we liked about our time in Havana. Inexplicably, we ate an amazingly delicious and completely authentic-tasting French croissant that we bought at the Union Francesa de Cuba, a gathering place and series of French eateries staffed by Cubans of French origin. We loved the Cuban art on display at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and that there was a whole national museum dedicated to Cuban artists, even those who had painted anti-Revolutionary works. We loved our hostess, L, and her “daughter,” M, together with their staff, Miriam and Maria, among others – warm, lovely and generous people who shared friendship, hospitality and some information with us during our stay. If we were to ever return to Cuba, it would only be to visit again with these wonderful people.  In addition to our hosts, we befriended a waiter at the local corner Cuban cafeteria, who shared more information about life in Cuba with us than everyone else combined, as well as a waiter (likely related to the owners) of Beirut Schwarma, the surprisingly authentic and tasty Lebanese restaurant near the Melia Cohiba. We loved the sounds of the school children in the yard that bordered one of the walls of our AirBnB garden and their noises were as energetic, lively and unguarded as any would be in an elementary school in the States.

 

 

We also considered thoughtfully the idea, shared by nearly all the Cubans with whom we spoke, that while life in Cuba is not necessarily easy, it is sufficient. They are clearly proud of the fact that there are no homeless people in Cuba – everyone has a place to live and a subsistence level of food rations, as well as free medical and dental care and free education. Most expressed that they prefer the simple life in Havana to the lives they observe in the US where it’s all “keeping up with the Joneses.”   We take them at face value when they talk about their travels to Mexico, the US and even Russia but have a difficult time wrapping our heads around how the average Cuban could afford a $1000 airline ticket to Russia.

Cubans boast that Havana is an extremely safe place and indeed, we walked on abandoned, often dark streets at night with little concern for safety. But we were scammed a couple of times on the street – once by a taxi driver and once by a woman who implored us to buy milk for her baby (which we did) only to see her reselling it minutes later on the street. The Cubans with whom we shared these stories just shook their heads knowingly – they’d heard these and similar stories before and acknowledged that tourists are often targeted by locals.

It was difficult to tell whether life is really  “sufficient” for Cubans. While medical and dental care is free to all Cubans, we were told that pharmacies are without even basic analgesics, all surgeries other than essential ones are basically nonexistent, and doctors are leaving the country in droves. We are not sure how work works in Cuba – we saw a lot of idle people and those who seem engaged in work were those working in entrepreneurial activities, the economics of which are still unclear to us, since we were told that the government receives all income from all activities and distributes only 20% of the entrepreneurial fees to the worker (as in the AirBnB fees). And while our hosts made various restaurant recommendations and even made reservations for us, we later learned that our hosts have never eaten out at these places and cannot afford to dine out except at the local cafeterias.

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New desk – $2000 (!)
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New sofa – $3000 (!)
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Choco-crack? Are sugared cereals now the opiate of the masses?
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We discovered by so many people walk in the streets . . .

How will all of this work out for Cubans? We have no idea. Cuba was certainly neither the first or last place we’ve visited where there is a significant divide between the life of the average citizen and that of the average tourist. Perhaps what makes Cuba different from these other places is that in Cuba, this divide is necessitated by its economic/political system and to us, it seemed that the Cuban people would not experience personal gain with new enterprises. Time will tell.

But it is not likely that we will be returning to see how the story unfolds.

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The iconic mojito
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Amazing croissants!
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“Our” backyard garden
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“Our” AirBnB room
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Recycled decor on display at this French restaurant
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Wonder what’s beneath all of this shrouding in this downtown restaurant?

* the phrase Cubans use when answering the phone, often said with the accent on the first word/syllable

Why We Travel

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A Very Special Place

This week, by pure chance, we ended up stopping at an ecolodge in a somewhat off-the-beaten-track location en route from the town of Bacalar to Valladolid. The ecolodge, Selva Bonita in Spanish (Beautiful Jungle in English and Kiichpam Kaax in Mayan), turned out to be a very special place. The lodge sits on property owned by a Mayan family that has been developed, over the course of the last decade, into a beautiful eco retreat, containing a restaurant, a number of cabins, swimming pool, nature trails and more. Selva Bonita’s website describes it as a “family run co-op centre, commited to the rescue and care for culture, nature and family relations of our community . . . to share with our visitors a new type of experience in which they will be able to interact with nature through a sustainable type of turism with activities that promote respect to the environment and Mayan cultural identity.”

We arrived, hoping for a meal and a place to park Wolfie for the night. We left with a greater understanding of Mayan culture, considerable appreciation for the enormous work and dedication that the family — Damian, Margaret and Juanita — has put into developing Selva Bonita, and an enormous respect and admiration, nearing awe, for the traditional beliefs of the Mayans. For the 48 hours of our stay, we were a part of this family. And these 48 hours exemplified, perhaps more than any other experience we’ve had in the past 16 months, the reason for this road trip.

During our time at Selva Bonita, we spent a day on a “tour” of the jungle, oriented toward identifying the many plants that the Mayans use (past and present) for medicinal purposes – plants used for venomous snake bite antidotes, for the treatment of asthma, diabetes, dysentery and more. We saw monkeys, turtles, the web of a tarantula, and more birds that we can mention. We tasted bark of various trees and several types of flowering plants. We saw how the Mayans harvest the chicle from the sapodilla tree from which chewing gum is made and tasted natural chewing gum made with this chicle. We learned of the predictions of the ancient Mayans of many things that are occurring to our natural world now and their philosophies concerning stewardship of the earth and conservation of natural resources. After our time in the jungle – a long, hot, sweaty 5+ hours of walking – we visited several traditional Mayan homes owned by relatives of Damien including a home owned by his aunt who, at age 72, boasts of a marriage of nearly 60 years, since she was married at 14 to her husband, who was 15 at the time. Under the protection of a traditional Mayan “palapa-style” roof, they sleep in hammocks and raise most of their own vegetables. Their home is equipped with electricity and they do enjoy modern conveniences such as a refrigerator and television (for watching telenovelas, Damian’s aunt confessed, with a twinkle in her eye) but their lives are simple and humble. They shared stories of their grandparents and of their culture; of the Mexican government banning Mayan language books from their schools and of bullying by others for being Mayan. And so it ultimately came as little surprise that Damian and family have dedicated their lives and their work toward sharing their Mayan cultural identity with others.

During our time in Mexico, we have visited many Mayan archeological sites and spent many hours combing the exhibits of museums dedicated to the history, culture and lives of the Mayans, past and present. but nothing compared to our experiences with the owners of Selva Bonita. It was the kind of immersive, albeit short, experience that sets apart the way we are traveling with the kind of vacationing we have done in the past. Of course, the two styles are not mutually exclusive. At Selva Bonita, we were joined by a French couple on their honeymoon who were on “vacation.” We learned that they sought out Selva Bonita because they wanted to experience an ecolodge environment. We are fairly certain that they, like us, learned that they had little idea of what they were about to experience. It is likely that they, like us, left Selva Bonita as changed people.

Another Very Special Place

The Selva Bonita experience made us want more of the same and we were fortunate enough to find another unique eco camping experience near our next stop in Valladolid. At Ecocamping Valladolid, our host, Ramon, has created a self-sufficient, eco campground that he built from scratch, including several VW Beetle “bedrooms,” solar powered electrical systems that run his refrigerator, water heaters, lighting systems and more. We are awed by his ingenuity and continue to discover his various inventions throughout his campground. Ramon boasts that everything thing in his campground was created of recycled items that he (later joined by a few friends) created from the ground up.

We know that sleeping in the cavity of a vintage VW Beetle or in a cabin in a jungle rich with Mayan traditions and culture is not necessarily for everyone. But we are loving these experiences and have added these to the very top of our “favorite road trip experiences.”

Nature or Nurture?

Both Roque and I come from families who valued travel and what they learned through their travels and it is possible that we would not have considered a lengthy road trip such as this had it not been in our “familial DNA.” No doubt that our exposure to travel whetted our appetites for the kind of exploration we are undertaking. As a bit of an aside, this is particularly noteworthy given our families’ modest backgrounds. In both of our families, neither Roque nor I have a single grandparent who attended college – in fact, we are not certain that any of our grandparents even graduated from high school. And nearly all of the miles traveled by our grandparents in their lifetimes were used in traveling from their countries of birth to the United States when they emigrated. Yet in the single generation between our grandparents and us, all of our parents not only graduated from high school and college, but also earned graduate degrees as well. Both of our families demonstrate some of the best of what was possible for immigrants to the US in the 20th century including home ownership, educational advancement, financial stability and securing enough free time to be able to vacation and travel.

We are fairly sure that we never really spoke to our parents about the value of “recreational” travel to them but from their examples (and the thousands of slides that we watched upon their return from their travels), we inferred that their lives were enhanced from the knowledge they gained from their travels. Clearly, we grew up wanting some of the same (as did our siblings as well).

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We’ve given a fair amount of thought and more than a few hours of discussion to the subject of the value of travel in our lives – particularly in the style of this epic road trip.  Our experiences this week have reinforced many of these thoughts and while there’s more that we will learn as the lessons percolate through us, we share some of them with you:

Travel Provides Understanding

We travel because we don’t want to just observe the lives of others – we want to experience and understand as much of the lives of others as we can. Entering cathedrals in every city exposes us to architecture and history but walking through a local shopping mall exposes us to manners of dress, and how people spend their consumer dollars and how they behave. We have watched how families in Mexico honor family — bringing elders and youth with them everywhere they go. They sit in multi-generational groupings in restaurants and parks, in theaters and at swimming pools, taking turns caring for those who need care and seemingly never getting ill tempered or impatient with each other. We have listened to the cacophony of car horns blasting the instant a light turns green but nary a sound when a man is helping his elderly mother (or mother-in-law) across the street. Shopping at the markets exposes us to the kinds of foods they eat and the way they shop. Eating at small roadside stands allows us to create a list of favorite foods that include things we couldn’t even (accurately) understand through Google. There are a thousand and one similar experiences and we haven’t even experienced Central America yet!

Travel Provides Perspective

Whether within the US or outside, we have learned that not all “universal” experiences are universal. We’ve learned that it is customary to tip the grocery store bagger and the gasoline pump attendant in Mexico because often they are not paid and rely exclusively on tips. We’ve learned that sometimes, U-turns are made from the left lane and sometimes, the right and sometimes, there are dedicated “returno” lanes for just this purpose. We’ve come to understand that traffic rules are largely unenforced throughout all of Mexico and yet traffic accidents are remarkably rare. While waiting to see a doctor, Mexicans always allow the elderly to advance to the head of the line and rarely are prescriptions necessary to refill maintenance-type medicines largely available at prices that are cheaper in Mexico that standard prescription insurance co-pays in the US.

It’s unusual for a week to pass – throughout the US, Canada and Mexico parts of our travel — where we don’t see something that makes us say “wow – wish we had THAT back on the East Coast or in the US. ”  This is part of the reason for this trip – to see the US and our lives there through a different lens, for better or worse.

Travel Provides Insight into Ourselves

Living on the road requires us to live outside our comfort zone nearly daily. The challenges we’ve faced have made us recognize that we are stronger and more resilient than we may have thought, and that we possess the ability to make decisions that require us to trust ourselves in ways we have not tested before. We have kept ourselves safe and we have overcome fear and learned that challenge is healthy. It keeps us aware and alive and alert, constantly resourceful. We have experienced simplicity and the beauty that comes from it. Along the road, we have finely tuned whatever patience we previously possessed, and have become people with infinitely greater abilities to see beauty in seemingly mundane experiences and things. We have become grateful for tiny things and have fewer expectations than in the past.

Simply put, our travels have humbled us and permitted us to become more accepting, particularly of ourselves and our limitations.

Some of all of this is summed up perfectly by friends of ours, Vanamos, who recently moved from the Washington, DC area to Mexico, following a year of overlanding travels from the US to Panama and back. In Vanamos’ blog post called “Our Mexican Revolution,” Paul wrote that:

When we told our friends and family that we were packing up the homestead and moving it south, we heard a lot about how brave we were.  We discounted that sentiment.  When we thought about what it means to be brave, we considered feats of strength and courage on the battlefield.  Quitting a six-figure job, uprooting your family, and voluntarily leaving a country where you can safely drink the water from a gas station lavatory wasn’t brave, it was slightly irresponsible and dumb.  But in a way we’ve come around to the idea that we are brave.  Having made the move overseas we realize that brave doesn’t have to mean a tally of how many men we’ve killed with our bare hands.  It can mean having the courage to change the path of your existence from a fine and comfortable but less than fulfilling lifestyle to something that is uncertain and sometimes difficult, but, hopefully, better.

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Reading Vanamos’ blog was an “aha” moment and helped us understand more about the significance of the decision we made to move to Panama and to take this path there. Our lives were rich before we left on this trip but they are richer for having followed our dreams. And we believe that living a life knowing that dreams can come true gives us purpose and hope. Everyone deserves this and we are grateful for these opportunities, over and over again, to experience these lessons.

 

 

Happy Anniversary to Us!

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We are celebrating one year of travel on this road trip from DC to Alaska to Panama!  On one hand, it seems like a million years ago that we packed up Gertie and left Maryland and on the other hand, it seems like it was just yesterday that we were posting our US-Canadian trip plan on Facebook.  Just as many other things that we planned before we left our last permanent home, much has been altered, changed, and adapted since we started our planning and travel on this epic trip of a lifetime.  Of our planned itinerary, we stuck mostly to the plan: we skipped some places we hoped to visit (Taos, for example, due to a major snowstorm forecast for our time there) and added a number of others (King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, for instance). We did travel north of the Arctic Circle but opted to do this in Canada rather than in Alaska due to concerns about the Dalton Highway and truck traffic on that road.

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Our Original US-Canada-Baja Planned Route

We dispensed with sleeping in a tent, and added our beloved camper, Wolfie, to our gear list.  We added a new bike rack but returned to using the one on the roof.  We added electricity to our camper life with a generator and an inverter, learned that Netflix, Amazon Prime, cell phones and plans, credit cards and satellite radio function very differently north and south of the lower 48, and have learned to adapt to different forms of lemonade and iced green tea.  We’ve met some amazing people and traveled with some of them — Tom and Stacy, Gayle and Bobby, Fritz and Bill, to name just a few — and have had the benefit of the wisdom of many Overlanders who we connected with before and during our trip.  We visited with friends and family as we traveled and returned “home” to visit with other friends and family last fall.

We’ve taken thousands of photographs of the hundreds of geological formations, wildlife species, towns, and people along our way and added more than 100 stickers to the windows of Gertie.  We have sustained some injuries to Wolfie and Gertie but none have delayed our travels or depleted our bank account significantly.  We have spent a sum of money on camping fees and gasoline for the entire year that is less than our rent in DC for 2016.  We have seen sunsets and sunrises over many bodies of water and rock formations and experienced 24 hours of sun for weeks on end this past summer. We have seen snow far more frequently than wished (or anticipated) and have experienced smoke from wildfires for the first time in our lives.  We have camped in pretty much every environment — cities, parks, roadside rest areas, forests, deserts and more. We’ve learned endless amounts of information about rocks, mountains, tectonic plates, weather, volcanos, earthquakes, wildlife, the US National Park system, western Canadian provinces and territories and the portions of Mexico through which we have traveled so far.

Our experiences in the US and Canada have been extraordinary; our experiences in Mexico, so far, have been extraordinary AND eye opening.  For us, Roque’s fluency in Spanish has been invaluable and it is difficult for us to wrap our heads around how Overlanders cope and deal with the myriad things necessary for road travel in this country if they do not speak Spanish.  Even for us, adapting to Mexican-Spanish, which we have dubbed MexiEnglish – a different form of Spanglish — has been interesting and comical at times.  Consider the word “roofo” that we have seen on stores advertising building materials (el techo is the Spanish word for roof or ceiling), or the term “se renta” on buildings that are available to lease (alquilar is Spanish for “rent”).  This is often so confusing that Roque has to let me know when a word is the authentic Spanish word or a form of MexiEnglish so I won’t add vocabulary that will make me the laughing stock of Panama.

Adapting to other things-Mexican has been a bit of a challenge at moments.  For example, consider our experience using a Mexican electronic toll pass that we purchased, believing that it would function, more or less, like the several other electronic toll passes we’ve owned in the past.  A word of background on Mexican roads — Mexican has a series of toll roads that basically parallel the free (libre) roads.  The toll roads are expensive, even by US standards and it’s not uncommon for us to pay several dollars for a segment of road less than 100 miles but they are tope (speed bump) free, generally well paved and can be driven at higher speeds.  The local and free roads are, by comparison, replete the above mentioned dreaded potholes, pavement irregularities, topes and more. (The craziness of Mexican drivers is a topic for another day).  We have opted to take as many toll roads as possible since the costs are well worth the ease of travel to say nothing of alleviating the wear and tear on our rig.  When we purchased the electronic toll pass, we thought having it would save our cash (effectiva)  for other essentials like gasoline and food as credit cards are not used in Mexico quite as extensively as in the US and Canada.  A great idea that took no less than a week and many attempts to get it to work.  First, we had to figure out how to load it with money (requiring stops at banks or stores to reload it with cash as only Mexican credit cards can be used – we think). Then, after going through several (5-6-ish) toll plazas without being able to use it, we learned that it needed to be registered.  Roque then registered it through a toll station employee who warned him that even with registration, it might still need to be manually entered at each toll plaza as the pass needs to be separately registered at toll plazas to be recognized there.  Oh my gosh.  Since it was highly unlikely that we would pass through the same toll plaza more than one time each, it started to look dubious that this pass thingy would be of any use to us.  Then, Roque was able to figure out how to register the device on the Mexican website, which required an address (we used that of the hotel which campground we were using in Aguascalientes) and voila, the device FINALLY registered at the toll plaza through which we traveled en route to Zacatecas.

Don’t get us wrong: there are a number of things that we have encountered here in Mexico that we think are really nice improvements over things we ever experienced in the US.  Kisoks in every store that allow for the recharging of sim cards and payment of accounts.  The purchase of cell data by the gig, untethered to costly telecommunication plans.  Guard posts in shopping centers.  Handbag racks next to tables in restaurants. Sloping escalators that allow shopping carts AND people to travel up and down together. Pharmacies that allow for the purchase of most medications without a prescription.  And much more.  And other things that we have loved that don’t fall neatly into any particular category:  amazing street food that is healthy and tasty and cheap, even by local standards; warm, friendly and joyful people in every place; incredible architecture dating to the 16th and 17th centuries when the US was barely a “discovery,” fabulous tequila everywhere.  We have loved seeing the Mexicans in down jackets, ear muffs, scarves and gloves here in Zacatecas when we are wearing shorts and the temperatures are in the 60’s. We have stared open-mouthed watching a father ride a bicycle holding his toddler in his right arm as he pedaled along. We have admired and photographed many beautiful doors and buildings that have no match in the US and that demonstrate a richness of history and love of beauty that is prevalent everywhere we have traveled in Mexico.

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If one wears down at 65 degrees . . .
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Shopping Center Guard
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Sloping escalator at Mega
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Auto Mac = drive in

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It’s been a year on the road, 50,000+ miles traveled, and a million memories etched forever in our brains and our hearts. We look forward to the coming year and the experiences we have ahead as we complete the journey to Panama.  Here’s wishing for a safe and memorable 2018 for our continued travels and wishes to you for a 2018 that is everything you want and need.

 

 

 

 

The Gift of Nearly Endless Encounters

It seems that most Pan American Highway overlanders officially “count” the start of their trip when they cross from the US into Mexico – likely, there are a number of reasons why this is the case, among which are the costs of US/Canadian travel and visa restrictions. Whatever the reasons, we, too, felt that the Pan American part of our trip started when we crossed the border into Tecate, Baja California at the end of November.

Our original plan called for us to cross into Mexico from San Diego and travel through Baja before crossing by ferry to the mainland. We chose this route because we wanted to visit Baja and camp on beaches on both sides – the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez – as well as due to general concerns about safety. There are so many US and Canadian snowbirds and others who visit Baja, we thought that entering through Tecate into Baja would be sort of “Mexico-light” or “Mexico 1.0.” And because most of the areas of safety concern are supposedly the border areas from Texas and Arizona, we thought that Baja would be a safer place to cross. While we won’t know what we would have experienced had we chosen a different route, the one we took proved to be what we hoped it might be – easy, safe and definitely a “Mexico-light” kind of experience.

We also had a hunch that once we crossed into Mexico, we would begin to meet other Pan Am Highway travelers (we will call them the Travelers from this point forward). No doubt that Travelers were hiding in plain sight in the US and Canada so we met relatively few of them amidst the very large number of North American RVers we saw in every place we visited. Pan Am travelers are often traveling in rigs that are much different than North American RV-type vehicles: many are in modified vans or trucks and still others are in European camper vans (caravans) that are distinctively different than North American RVs – usually smaller and more rugged and/or sleek in terms of design. There are other identifying characteristics of a rig headed for Panama or Argentina such as roof tents, rigs loaded with gear inside and out, gas and water canisters mounted on the rigs, etc. It also helped when we spied a European license plate or a URL emblazoned across a rig with a foreign country domain name.

Here are some examples of what an Overlander’s rig might look like:

Or like this:

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If you see one of these, get outta the way (or ask for a tour inside)!

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When we spot such a rig, we invariably assume that these travelers are headed for Panama or Ushuaia, Argentina. On multiple occasions, we have pounced on and started peppering them with questions. What we learned from these initial conversations is that there are a number of Europeans who ship their rigs to North America because the cost of shipping can be absorbed over several months of travel when compared with the expense of hotel costs in the US and Canada. We also learned that while not all of these Euro campers were headed for Panama or Argentina, a large number of them intend to do some portion of it, at least until their money or time runs out.

Once we hit Mexico, however, it seemed that the majority of campers we’ve met in Baja campgrounds are headed for some destination along the Pan Am. And on Baja, where there is really just one highway and a series of towns with just a few campground options, we started to encounter some of the same travelers over and over again, in a leap frog kind of way: one day, we might be a day behind someone else and then we would be riding bikes in town and we would literally bump into someone we met 2 towns ago. Our list of Baja friends included Diana and Santiago from Brazil/US and Columbia, Fritz (Austria), Mike (Montana) and Bill (Scotland), Josie and Rob (the Netherlands), Jerry and Bonnie (British Columbia), Ben (Switzerland) and Rachel (US/Switzerland) and others. All had different destinations, different rigs and different stories. We enjoyed them all.

The beauty of this gift of nearly endless encounters was the joy of arriving in a place and seeing a friendly face, often at a particularly fortuitous moment. One such case was after we left the town of Todos Santos, a small artsy community about an hour and a half north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific side of Baja, and while looking for a possible beach camping location, we became stuck in the sand in an arroyo. Folks walking along the beach approached with offers of help (one couple were camping with us in Todos Santos, as it happened) and together, we unhooked the truck from Wolfie, extracted first the truck and then camper from the sand, and high-tailed it out of the arroyo before the high tide arrived. (Turned out that the debris showing the tide line was left over from the Super Moon’s high tide earlier that week and we weren’t in jeopardy of a floating Wolfie after all.) While in the middle of attempts at extricating the rig from the sand, we looked up and saw Fritz and Bill, who happened to arrive at the very same location at the exact right moment in time. We celebrated the liberation of Gertie and Wolfie with beers and a shared meal later that evening, grateful for our rig’s safety and the generosity of our friends’ help.

Earlier during our time in Baja, just as we entered the town of Santa Rosalia, we had a similar gift of an encounter with wonderful people when one of Wolfie’s leaf springs broke, causing the trailer to collapse onto the axle and prevented further movement. A local man, whose name we never knew, stopped and jumped into action, sliding beneath Wolfie, working alongside Roque, as both tried to both diagnose the problem. By the time additional help arrived (we never discovered who called the Aguilar brothers to help with repairing Wolfie), our unnamed local man had dirtied his clothes, sustained a minor injury to his hand, and worked tirelessly next to Roque for more than an hour by the time that a temporary solution was devised to allow us to pull Wolfie to the shop for repair. While we gave him money to show our gratitude for his help, we know that when he stopped to help, being paid was not his motivation.

As we near the first anniversary of our time on the road, the gift of endless encounters with kind and lovely people, everywhere we’ve visited, has enriched our experiences, enhanced our understanding of the world, and provided us moments of social interaction and a sense of community that our solitary kind of travel often lacks. And in this time when the US media, social and otherwise, portrays the US as a place of great division, anger, and more, we can share that this is not what we have experienced along the road, whether in the US, Canada or Mexico. We have felt safe. And welcome. And accepted.

And for this and more, we are grateful.

Wishing all of you happiness and joy during this season of celebration.

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Roque with (from l to r): Bill, Mike an Fritz
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Jerry, Roque and Bonnie
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Bonnie, Sharon and Jerry
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The great folks at Aguilar
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Roque working on Wolfie’s broken “paw”
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Sand extraction, Part II

Our route through Baja to the Mainland, as of today:

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Cooking On The Road

(Or, given the timing of this post and today’s holiday, Happy Thanksgiving to all!)

Initial Camping Kitchen Set-Up

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Original Camping Set Up

You will recall that when we left Maryland on December 26, 2016 on this road trip, we were tent camping. At the time, we were carrying a fairly sophisticated arrangement of camping “rooms” – a traditional dome tent for sleeping, a screen tent for our outdoor living area and tarps to frame and shield our outdoor kitchen, usually “built” around a park-supplied picnic table. We had long before dispensed with the traditional Coleman-type 2 burner camp stove and had upgraded to a more powerful 2 burner Mr. Heater Basecamp camp stove which is rated at 15,000 BTU per burner.

 

In addition to the camp stove, based upon an ingenious idea obtained from Pinterest, our camp kitchen was housed in a Stanley Tool Fatmax rolling toolbox. Within it were utensils, foil, baggies and plastic wrap, spices, cutlery and silverware, pots and dishes alongside our dishwashing and drying necessaries. We also had one large bear-proof box (creatively named the “bear box”) that housed other kitchen items such as charcoal and fire starter, larger pots, cutting boards, pantry items, etc. We were traveling with a 63 quart ARB 12-volt refrigerator which we powered using the cigarette lighter adapter while driving and our 100 watt solar panel and Goal Zero Yeti 400 solar “generator” while stationary.

We brought as many spices, sauces and pantry ingredients as we could fit into the Kitchen and Bear Box because we wanted to continue to cook and eat as we did in our brick-and-mortar home. While it is not completely clear how other overlanders cook and eat on the road –- whether they stick to basics or bring a little of home with them – we thought that since we planned to be on the road for well over a year, we wanted to eat the same (or similar) broad range of foods that we ate before we left on the trip. This included cooking with flavors from the Mediterranean, Asia, India and elsewhere.

This all worked pretty well. It was cumbersome but workable. We packed an amazingly large amount of sauces, condiments, spices and pantry items as well as kitchen utensils, including an electric coffee/spice grinder and a small electric chopper/food processor (in addition to a manual coffee grinder). We scaled down to several pots and pans – a cast iron skillet, cast iron Dutch oven, cast iron plancha (grill/griddle combo) and small pot with lid.

Before we left on the trip, we added frequently used recipes to the Pepperplate app for easy access along the road.   Pepperplate is a website/app that allows users to upload recipes (user generated or obtained from other websites) and create menus, from which shopping lists can be generated and more. It’s a powerful and handy app for anyone who enjoys cooking, recipe collecting and entertaining (the shopping list feature is worth its weight in gold as it aggregates ingredients — so handy for holiday meal preparations!).

Life After Wolfie 

When we acquired Wolfie, we moved our kitchen from the Kitchen and Bear Box inside. Wolfie’s kitchen has a 2 burner propane stove, a small sink, a microwave and a small fridge that runs on propane or electric. Of course, the microwave works only when we have electricity. (More on electricity below). We also have a small counter space next to the sink and a couple of storage areas above, below and next to the sink/stove areas.

Roque very cleverly used one of our 3 door plastic “dressers” (previously used for clothes when we were tent camping) inside one of Wolfie’s storage cabinets which now houses spices, pantry items, some canned goods and sauces. A $2 tin bucket from Michaels’ houses our most frequently used utensils – wooden spoons, spatulas, whisk, knives and cutting boards have a place alongside Wolfie’s 2-burner stove. We house our pots and pans under the sink with our dishes (plastic and paper) and our additional pantry items are in a cabinet or under the benches at the dinette (together with all sorts of other stuff). Prep space in Wolfie is extremely limited now that we are using our counter space for a dish drain so most of our food prep is done on a cutting board placed on the sink.

Despite the compact space we live within, we have added a couple of kitchen gadgets along the trip including a dehydrator for making jerky (ours is better, more healthy and less expensive than from the store), a small electric drip coffee maker (the French press uses too much water to clean when we are wild camping), dish drainer and a couple of extra cups for when we have “company” but otherwise we are using the same equipment as when we were in a tent. The Stanley Fatmax tool box was returned to its originally intended function as a tool box and the bear box is being used for hoses and Wolfie-related items. Wolfie’s fridge added a tiny freezer that allows for some ice and additional fridge space.

Note on Electricity:

Electricity for us is a bit like other technology in that it’s a work in progress kind of thing . . . For those familiar with RVing, you know that RVs have a “house” battery (usually some form of 12 volt car or marine battery) that charges when you are driving and that runs some of the RV’s essential functions such as lights, water pump, USB power outlets (for newer models), RV fridge, hot water heater, kitchen and bathroom fan and perhaps a little more. The battery does not supply sufficient power to run AC, microwave, or “regular” power outlets. You can add batteries to the RV battery bank but that will only extend the amount of time you can run essential functions without recharging UNLESS you also add a power inverter that will “convert” (which is really inverting) 12 volts power into AC power to run small appliances such as drip coffee makers. Many modern RVs are sold with solar connections that allow for solar panels to connect into the RV electrical system and then recharges the battery when the RV is stationary and not hooked to electricity.

In order to run a powered appliance, you need either an inverter (which simply converts stored power from DC to AC) or a generator, which actually creates usable electricity for power-hungry functions like the microwave or air conditioning.

Many in RVs never sweat any of this because larger RVs usually come with generators built into the rig, drawing gasoline directly from the gas tank of the rig, or they just rely on campground-supplied power. It’s great to have power supplied at a campsite but camping only in campgrounds supplying power limits you to certain kinds of camping.

Our Goal Zero solar “generator” is really just a beautifully packaged battery with an inverter attached . . . The model we bought was the Yeti 400 and the “400” denotes the watts that are “generated” by the inverter. Our Goal Zero produces enough power to power our ARB fridge and to recharge our phones and tablets. It can also be used for our small coffee grinder or tiny food chopper but that is about its limits.

After we wild camped a few times, we realized that there were times when we were going to want more power so that we could recharge the house battery, or we could run the coffee maker or we could run the air conditioner. For these needs, we knew we needed a generator, which we decided to purchase while on the road to Alaska, ordered online for store pick up in Anchorage.

We opted to purchase a Champion generator that can produce sufficient watts to run the air conditioning in Wolfie because it seemed to make little sense to have a generator that supplied some but not all of our needs. We believed, as well, that the generator might come in handy for future non-RV applications and we could, therefore, justify the purchase for several reasons. The one we bought works well but it is quite loud – the much quieter Honda generators are extremely costly so while we would have loved less noise, we couldn’t justify the additional cost.

To counter the generator noise issue, we later decided to add a 1500 watt power inverter into our set up. The inverter is silent because it is not generating electricity but just inverting power from 12 volt to AC. It is connected to Wolfie’s house battery (which is now chained to an additional AGM marine battery that we were using with the Goal Zero in Gertie) and allows us to run an extension cord to the coffee maker or coffee grinder in the morning without starting up the generator.

Most Pan American Highway overlanders do not appear to be traveling in any sort of RV and are likely doing just fine with a solar panel and battery plus some type of inverter. Most RVers are likely fully self sufficient with factory-supplied generators connected to the RV’s electrical system and gas supply. We are kind of in between. The sort of “hit and miss”-learning by experience that has emerged over our time on the road has probably resulted in a hodgepodge of solutions that might make others howl with laughter but it seems, finally, to be working for us.

Our Eating Repertoire

Our breakfasts and lunches are simple affairs – most of our thought and energy go into planning and making our dinners. On average, we will cook 6 out of 7 dinners – or 20 out of 21 weekly meals. They are also mostly simple affairs consisting of a grilled source of protein and a vegetable or salad or a fruit. Keeping fresh veggies and fruits around is a challenge – they take up a LOT of refrigerator space and spoil easily so often we have one or the other with dinner but rarely both. Roque is a master at grilling, whether over gas, charcoal or firewood and we have enjoyed many meals of grilled whole fish, steaks, racks of lamb, pork of all sorts and more. Grilling is not always possible, particularly when parks restrict fires and charcoal grills and grilling over a propane heated, cast iron plancha does not always produce excellent results. So, when we are not grilling, we have enjoyed pan seared Pacific halibut, pan seared steaks, freshly shucked local oysters and more. We have learned how to “bake” mini pizzas in the Dutch oven, made stews, prepared curries, scrambled eggs, blackened salmon, stir-fried Asian meals, “doctored” ramen packets with veggies, pork belly and aromatics, and created chicken lettuce wraps just like when we lived in DC. On Passover, we prepared a small sedar, complete with gefilte fish (store bought), hard-boiled eggs, matzo and homemade matzo ball soup. We have learned that much is possible with a bit of thought and a healthy dose of creativity. Still, we have also de-emphasized meal prep over the course of this trip largely because the therapeutic value of cooking was significantly reduced after retirement and because we just didn’t feel the urge to spend a lot of time in the kitchen/fire pit when there was so much other stuff to do.

Our Shopping Regimen

A friend asked us about our shopping routine one day and the question stopped me in my tracks: what WAS our shopping routine? Earlier in our trip, we learned from shopping trips to grocery “stores” in Terlingua, Texas (on the western edge of Big Bend National Park) and in Springdale, UT (on the western edge of Zion National Park) that while there is often some source of grocery items, the selection and cost for “our” staples made it essential that we ensure these items were stockpiled, when possible.

After passing through tiny towns with little more than convenience stores within gas stations as a source of procuring grocery items, we learned to take mental stock of “meals” on hand – eggs and cans of salmon and tuna as well as PB&J were always in our pantry. After spending substantial time in Canada, we learned that sugar-free beverages were scarce and that we had to make adjustments when it came to our preferred non-alcoholic drinks. (Note: alcoholic beverages in Canada are HIGHLY taxed and much more expensive than in the US – we learned to stock up on liquor in Alaska before heading back through Canada).   In short, as long as we could count on at least 2 meals within our pantry and fridge, we knew we wouldn’t go hungry.

When in new towns, one of our great pleasures is to visit new grocery stores. Within the US, grocery store chains are often more familiar than not and we learned that our store courtesy card/phone numbers worked in stores where we had NEVER shopped before, making clear that some chains are linked whether we are aware of this or not. For example, Albertson’s, which we have visited throughout the western US, is a chain related to Safeway in some manner.

In short, we shop when necessary – when we are out of essentials or when we have “nothing to eat.” This pattern is not unlike how we shopped when we resided in a brick-and-mortar home – we shopped nearly daily for dinner items and bought our staples at the same time. While we cannot, as a general rule, purchase Costco-sized packages, we buy our racks of lamb only at Costco and have made many batches of curried chicken salad from the rotisserie chickens we buy at warehouse clubs.

What We Crave

Despite our expansive cooking repertoire, broad palate and willingness to eat what the locals eat, there are things we don’t get to eat often enough to fulfill our inner (eating) souls. Among these things are good sushi. Bagels. Dim sum.   Good fried chicken. Chopped liver. Anything braised. And a delicious piece of cake or pastry. The take-away is that it is worth waiting for the right place (or kinda-right place) before trying to satisfy the craving, even if it means waiting 6 months for sushi. Or learn how to make it yourself. (Ask Roque about shucking Pacific oysters – a topic for another day.)

Cooking in Mexico

Since we just arrived in Mexico, it is not clear how our eating and cooking will change. The first several days felt like we were on vacation and we succumbed to the temptation to eat out – one late lunch at a beautiful vineyard, El Cielo, in the Valle de Guadeloupe, an early lunch of tostadas on the street at La Guerrerense, and a fabulous early dinner at Manzanilla in Ensenada. The meals were each memorable and, frankly, better than most of the restaurant meals we’ve eaten along this trip. They were also, predictably, much less expensive than most of the meals that we have eaten (in or out) over the past year of travel and so, the dilemma, both in terms of pocketbook and waistline, for us will be in finding some balance.

We have already learned, from visits to local markets and grocery stores, that we will not be without good (and familiar) food, however, meat is butchered differently in Mexico than in the US and the broad selection of cuts and types (lamb has been absent from all of the stores we have visited including Costco and Sam’s Club) may limit what we purchase until we become more familiar and, perhaps, more adventurous. It is exciting to find huge bins of different dried chilies, unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, and ones that we recognize but do not know how to cut or prepare (prickly pear being among them). And the spices! We replenished our ground cumin the other day with a 40 gram packet that cost under $1; the same was true for aji molido (garlic powder).

Our favorite beverages are not available in any store so we will need to make adjustments but we are flexible and are sure we will adapt. And when we are able, we look forward to cooking classes and more research on how to use some of the local ingredients and, perhaps, will find the courage to learn to cook things we love to eat but have never cooked. Pulpo anyone?

 


 

In case you are interested, here is a list of what we have and try to keep on hand:

Spices

Salt, white pepper, black pepper (whole and ground), garlic powder, onion powder, cumin (whole and ground), Montreal steak seasoning, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, mustard powder, Old Bay, curry powder, garam masala, sumac, ras el hanout, ginger powder, cinnamon sticks, ground cinnamon, whole nutmeg, allspice (whole and ground), cayenne, bay leaves, fennel seeds, and celery seeds.

 

Sauces and Pantry Items

Oil (canola and extra virgin olive oil), soy sauce, vinegar (champagne and balsamic) chicken and beef bouillon, Tabasco and 2 other hot sauces, Worcestershire sauce, sesame oil, oyster sauce, Asian fish sauce, Chinese rice wine, hoisin, flour, white and brown sugar, splenda, dried whole milk, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla, rice, canned sardines, canned tuna, canned anchovies, canned salmon, Rotel, peanut butter, maple syrup, mustard, ketchup, mayo, grape jam, Naomi Benzil’s mango chutney and peach mango honey, fresh garlic, minced ginger, lemons, limes, tomato paste (in a tube), panko, bread crumbs, various dried beans and legumes and some other items that we’ve likely overlooked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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