It’s Not All a Box of Chocolates

Some of our best blog posts come about because of the questions posed by friends and family. Often, these questions make us pause and discuss the things that we may be processing in a quiet way; at other times, the questions raise subjects that we have mulled over in our heads or in discussions between us and they give us a chance to be a little more transparent about things that arise during our travels.

The other day, a friend asked a question that invoked the problem we often debate about transparency. She asked: “Ok. What happens on the “challenging” days of your trip? Ups and downs, sickness, food too strange to eat, getting lost? I mean even Anthony Bourdain regaled us with some of the low points! Give it up!”

For those of you who have been following (some or all) our BootsandCoffee.com blog or FB posts since 2016, you will know that we have described some of the ups and downs along our travels. But in full transparency, we haven’t been as forthcoming about some of the trials as we have about the tribulations. Mainly, this is because we have had many debates and discussions between us about how to describe the challenges in a way that doesn’t portray the experiences, peoples or places in a negative light. Both of us are very easy going and cheerful, glass-half-full people by nature and we have a tendency to see life through that lens and so you see our experiences through that lens as well. Neither of us enjoy the divisiveness and negativity we see on Facebook groups, particularly the expat ones, that portray a place as undeveloped, corrupt, inefficient, or incompetent and so we try to stay away from anything that could have the potential for joining that scrum. But, we can see how our avoidance of some of these topics can paint a skewed view of our travels and things that have challenged us.

When we set out to blog about our travels, we did it primarily to pay it forward to folks, perhaps like us, who thought that they were too old, too inexperienced, too nervous or too whatever to do the kind of travels that we were setting out to do. So, in that vein, transparency is important and we will do our best to be as respectful of ourselves and our places as possible while discussing some of our travel challenges.

How do we deal with sickness?

Amazingly, over the combined 24 months of travel between the Pan Am and Asia trips, we have rarely been sick. Early into the Pan Am trip, Roque had the symptoms of a very bad cold that kept him in bed for days. By then, we were in Wolfie and had the luxury of a real bed (and not the cots in our original tent). In the end, the cold turned out, we think, to be a really bad case of seasonal allergies that we didn’t accurately diagnose because the heavy pollen came much earlier in the south than we were used to in DC. Once we figured this out, he started to take allergy meds and while the pollen counts through the southern states of the US were super high for a very prolonged time, he eventually got some relief as we left these areas.

We have both remarked on many occasions that we must have stomachs of steel. Generally, we try to be careful and avoid anything that seems risky, but we have often eaten at street stalls, roadside food stops, and more without many negative consequences. and mostly, we haven’t had any stomach problems. During our time in the Yucatán, Mexico, following our return from Cuba, Roque had intestinal issues that required us to call a doctor. We were lucky to be in Playa Del Carmen at that time, in a condo where we had friends and we were able to get a referral to a physician. The doctor made a house call, took samples from Roque and we learned he had a bacteriological and parasitic infection. Both were treated with easily obtained medication that was affordable. And because were were staying in the condo for 5 weeks, the time out of commission was, thankfully spent in a comfortable, air conditioned place.

Other than these instances, we have only an occasional day with any ailments. Once in a while, a headache or something minor will slow us down and we listen to our bodies and just stop for the moment, or the hour, or the day. One of the beauties of traveling with a very long time horizon is the ability to stop in place because we are not booked on an itinerary that keeps us moving.

It is possible that homesickness has been more of an issue than physical illness. On both trips, we experienced periods of missing people and places. During the Pan Am trip, the transition between worker to retirement to traveler was difficult as we tried to figure out who we were and having rid ourselves of nearly all of our earthly possessions, we didn’t even have our familiar surroundings to ground us.

Roque tells the story of when, in the days just before we left in late December 2016, the full import of being “homeless” struck him like a lightening bolt, shaking him to his core. Because he is ordinarily so unflappable and easy going, and untethered to “stuff,” Sharon thought he was joking until she realized that he was really having a bout of cold feet. Similarly, Sharon wept more than a few tears when she set about as a full time camper, grasping for some sort of purpose and meaning, in the months that followed retirement. We are lucky to have partners that always provide the yin to the other’s yang. It is just part of who we are – when one is weaker, the other turns even stronger. And we regain our balance.

It helps us that we have the ability to stay connected to our loved ones by electronic, nearly instantaneously, communications. We have friends and have met others who traveled in similar ways as we are but at times when there were no GPS devices, when internet was available only in expensive internet cafés (if at all), when there were no smart phones and inexpensive SIM cards at every turn and when hotels, airlines, tour operators, lodgings and more didn’t have online booking options. We are so lucky to have the electronic resources to remain connected to people and to make our travel arrangements on the fly. This has really grounded us and allowed us to overcome bouts of homesickness in so many ways.

Hanoi Airport

Have we encountered food too strange to eat?

Absolutely. We have looked at some foods and declined. But, generally speaking, we have never been presented with no choices or choices that do not include something recognizable and to us, palatable. Everywhere we have traveled, we see rice, or potatoes, or chicken. There is usually a fruit or a package of crackers or a Coke that we can identify. Often as not, we have seen Starbucks, KFC, McDonald’s and Subways in many places where we have traveled. In fact, there have been moments when we eat fast food – not only because it is familiar and sometimes scratches the itch but also because we are endlessly fascinated by the local twists on the US branded fast food chains. (Spicy kaffir lime KFC chicken, anyone? Here, it is served on real plates with metal cutlery.)

Still, we have admittedly broad palates and we enjoy (relatively) spicy food. We eat fish, beef, chicken, goat, duck and lamb. We’ve eaten elk, and caribou, and bison, and water buffalo as well as rabbit, eel, alligator and likely others that we cannot remember. We’ve tried fried grasshoppers (Roque likes them; Sharon ticked that box and needs no more) but didn’t eat from the tables filled with various insects we saw in the markets of Thailand with water bugs, grasshoppers, crickets, ant larvae and more. We declined to add water buffalo bile to our Lao dishes during cooking class (which is sold by the bag in the markets) but we tried the Lao tripe. We sampled the Lao-Lao rice whiskey but didn’t bother trying the one with the snakes or scorpions submerged within (made mostly for the Chinese market, we were told).

If we approached our travel like Andrew Zimmern, we certainly could have made a few episodes of Bizarre Foods. Mostly, we stick to things we know and that we hope we will like.

More challenging is the fact that we have now eaten out for every meal within the past 3-4 months. There are a few ways that we are coping with this “problem.” One is that we will often sometimes eat just two meals a day. Another way is to eat lightly for one of our meals. We rarely, if ever, have 3 “sit down” meals a day. When we stay in hotels, we’ve opted, more often than not, to choose a “breakfast included” option. This allows us to 1) experiment with how the locals eat breakfast and 2) not to have to deal with finding a meal when we first arrive in a new city. For lunch and many dinners, we will eat at a market stand, or a street stall, a hawker or food court or counter of some sort, eating local food.

We always carry instant coffee and creamer because in Asia, all the rooms come with an electric teapot and many lodgings offer instant Nescafé in the rooms. We often visit grocery stores to wander through the aisles and we will buy soft drinks, water, snacks and other items as needed. If we cannot locate a grocery store, most convenience stores sell the basics.

How do we deal with getting lost?

Shortly after we met in 2009, we visited Puerto Rico for a destination wedding of a colleague of Roque’s. We had reservations at a Sheraton hotel that was located an hour or so south of San Juan in Caguas. A taxi transported us there upon arrival and the next morning, we decided to rent a car so we took a bus to San Juan to arrange for the rental. We opted to rent the GPS device offered even though we had two Blackberry devices (with Google maps) with us.

When we left San Juan for our hotel, we made turn after turn, relying on all three GPS devices/applications, and we just could not find the hotel. We stopped and asked for directions but we could not find the hotel. We were into the third hour of being lost when we stopped again for directions and a man said that he would show us the way and asked us to follow him. With more than a little trepidation, we did. Shortly later, we arrived at the Sheraton, intact and safe, and grateful for his help.

During the three hours that it took us to find the hotel, we never once had a cross word for each other. We worked and worked and worked together, never losing our cools, and never raising our voices in frustration or anger.

In the intervening 10 years, we have been lost again and have been in pretty dangerous situations at least a couple of times but we have never really lost our cools. While pulling the trailer on our Pan Am trip, we ended up on a single lane, unpaved mountain road, while looking for a camping space, that barely allowed Roque to turn the rig around after we realized we were at the proverbial end of the line. But he made it. Once, near Mt. Rainer National Park, Roque executed a U Turn over a bundle of bramble that caused a tire to flatten in the middle of nowhere that required us to purchase new tires. There was the time when because of contaminated gasoline, our truck was misfiring and we got stuck on a sharp incline in Guatemala, unable to move farther up the hill (but we were resumed by a Guatemalan who helped tow us uphill). Trying to save a $4 camping fee, we found ourselves stuck in sand in Baja California, south of the town of Todas Santos, needing to dig out both truck and trailer with the incoming tide threatening us. And on an unimproved mountain road in Costa Rica where we had no business being, we had a blow out of a tire on the camper that revealed a large “rip” in the steel undercarriage of the camper and a bent axle that ultimately caused us to shorten our time in Costa Rica so that we could just make it to Panama safely. (We had been told by friends that the road would be ok for us but we later learned that they transposed the route numbers, making the road the one that they meant to advise against!).

We’ve also dodged political unrest in Honduras, Nicaragua and Jakarta.

Some of these experiences have been quite scary and a few, more than a little traumatic. Usually, we do not outwardly freak out during these experiences even though we have later confessed to a great deal of inner turmoil. We have the kind of problem-solving temperaments that allow for adrenaline to flow to all the right places — meaning, in our case, our brains. When we are in real emergencies, like the situations mentioned above, we usually get very determined and logical, and if one is doing a little flipping out, the other usually steps up to the plate. It is a dance we have experienced and that we rely on as the safety net that catches us when we feel like we may be falling.

In other situations, where the situation is problematic but not urgent, we have a pattern that involves 1) the freak out, 2) the throwing of everything up against the wall to see what sticks, 3) the time of contemplation and distance from the problem, which always results in 4) some sort of natural resolution that suits both of us perfectly.

What works for us is the time we take between identifying the problem and the finding of the solution and brainstorming as a team. Usually, we work best when we allow things to percolate a little and when they do, the best solution emerges.

And at the end, we always have a great story to tell and a lesson that we have learned. And this is what builds further resilience.

So, what has challenged you?

We feel so blessed by our ability to travel freely, safely and without hassle through the countries we’ve transited since 2016. And we are grateful that we, even though not rich, can afford to travel. We have enjoyed some places more than others but have yet to visit a country to which we would refuse to return.

Grateful as we are, not everything has been perfect along our way. Here are a few of the challenges we’ve encountered during our prolonged travels:

~It is hot here (as it was in many places during our Pan Am trip) and we cannot remember a day here in Asia when an outing did not result in sweat-soaked clothing and the feeling like we are soggy to the bones. The heat and humidity can also suck every last joule of energy from us. We have learned that because of the temperature and our ages, we just move slower and accomplish less in a travel day here than we might like to admit. Slowing down and pacing ourselves is a constant work in progress.

~Finding a place to lay low when you are just too tired or hot to go out. Not all hotels and lodgings are equal. Many rooms are small or smallish and do not have comfortable chairs, places to lounge and few allow you to do it with minimal clothes on. While we were traveling on the Alaska Highway, we traveled with a couple from Florida who periodically said that they were going to have a “home day.” This was their phrase for a day without sightseeing; a day to catch up on stuff like writing postcards, doing maintenance things, doing laundry, paying bills and the like. Whether you are in a camper, a motor home, a hotel or an AirBnB, sometimes we just needs a “home day” to just catch up on the stuff of life or just to do nothing. Having a home day is always better with a comfy place to sit.

~Not having access to ice.

~Changing beds and pillows every several days can be a pain in the butt. Literally. We are pretty good sleepers yet some of the mattresses have been super firm/hard for us and while hotels often are able to provide extra pillows, AirBnBs rarely have spares.

~Sometimes, the places where we are have bad smalls. Sometimes, the smells come from those sitting next to us at a restaurant. Or those serving us in those restaurants. Sometimes, the smells come from us.

~It can be exhausting being in places where pedestrians do not have the right of way. Here, pedestrians NEVER have the right of way. Four eyes are never enough to feel that we have accounted for the vehicles that come from every direction and rarely honor traffic lights or marked cross walks. Because of the thousands and thousands of motorbikes, many sidewalks are packed with parked motorbikes, requiring us to walk in the streets, dodging and weaving parked and moving vehicles of all sorts as well as pedestrians. Motorbikes rule the roads and the sidewalks here, cutting in front of you and backing out into you. If it weren’t so comical at times, it could drive you crazy.

~Sidewalks that are uneven and too narrow to allow for the many purposes to which they are put – here, sidewalks are for parking vehicles, for making and serving food, for the displaying and selling everything and more. But not for walking.

~Tourists stopping and taking pictures right in front of you so that you have to remain at least a dozen steps behind people in order not to run smack into them. And can you please give us the name of the person who invented the selfie stick and the speaker function of the cell phone?

~Another challenge has been learning that tourists of all nations can be ugly. Ugly and poor behavior knows no geographical boundaries.

~Another “low” of sorts is realizing that there are not many true handmade handicrafts anymore . . . Nearly everything is made by machine and nearly everything is rather cheaply made. There are places where we’ve stopped to buy something local and found that same item elsewhere (even everywhere) along our travels. This doesn’t mean that some things aren’t still beautiful – they just cannot be counted on to be handmade.

So, yes, there have been some challenges. We have not made a corresponding list of the “highs” because they are the stuff of all of our photos and Facebook posts – the sights and places and people and food and experiences that we have celebrated and enjoyed. So, while there are things that have gotten under our skin, the longer we are here, the more we find ways to laugh about or work around them.

When we arrived in Asia at the end of April, we had a difficult time dealing with some of the differences, with pacing ourselves and slowing down. Now we are faced with the other dilemma – having enough time in places in which we would like to linger. And just about the time when we start getting the hang of it, it will be time to leave.

It seems to us that our learning curve during this trip is less steep than the last trip and so the lows are all worth it. They make us wiser and more patient and better able to manage the future challenges. This is the joy of travel. Because to us, travel is nothing if our learning is only about others and not about ourselves.

Halong Bay, Treasure Junk deck, at night
Vientiane, Laos – Patuxay Park
Cooking School – Chiang Mai, Thailand
Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi
Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi
Imperial Palace, The Citadel, Hûe, Vietnam
Trâng An, Ninh Binh, Vietnam

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Cooking On The Road

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

Initial Camping Kitchen Set-Up

Camp set Up
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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Trip Plan – Part I

One of the most challenging things for me has been trying to work on aspects of the blog BEFORE we leave on the trip. Road mapping? No problem. Making endless lists? No problem. Sorting through belongings in garage and itemizing for donations?  No problem.  This embedding of maps and way points – well, let’s just say that for me, it’s more difficult than mastering phyllo dough or organizing a party for 100 . . .

I have learned how to use Google My Maps to create layers and to show the way points planned for the trip – I even got as far as showing the driving route from DC to Anchorage. But alas, THAT map won’t embed in this blog, as far as I can tell (at least as of this moment). So today’s experiment is with embedding a map – next task is to learn how to embed a map with ALL of our planned way points and not just a portion of a trip.

Plain ol’ Google Maps will allow for a certain number of points to be shown on a driving map and this is what is displayed below.  As I experiment, be patient.  I continue to learn, whether about solar energy, satellite messaging devices, bull bars or bug net hats for Alaska.  Behold the result of some of today’s lessons.

Dr. Seuss and Solar Power

The More that You Read,

The More Things You Will Know.

The More that You Learn,

The More Places You Will Go.

˜ Dr. Seuss

A year ago — no a MONTH ago – had you asked me about solar power, I would have given you a blank look.  What a difference a month makes and shows that the more that I read, the more things I will know and armed with that learning, the more places Roque and I will go.

From the scores of Overlander blogs from we have read and studied over the past couple of months, it seemed pretty clear that life on the road will be a whole lot more comfortable and enjoyable if we have a 12 volt refrigerator with us.  Not to be confused with thermoelectric coolers, 12 volt refrigerator/freezers are true refrigerators and have the capacity to maintain temperature required for real refrigeration, regardless of external temps.  Not only will this allow us to have fresh veggies, beverages and meat food on hand for days, it will allow us to save leftovers, etc. without having to deal with the inconvenience of locating ice and dealing with the melting, to say nothing of the spoilage that inevitably results from days of camping with coolers and ice.  Not a necessity, for sure, and relatively expensive (certainly compared to the cost of ice), but having such a fridge is a luxury we figure will be a great investment considering the amount of time we will be on the road and the unknowns of locating fresh food and ice. Continue reading “Dr. Seuss and Solar Power”

What’s your lodestar?

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The convergence of a theme emerged last week in ways too coincidental to ignore.  Alternatively, it’s completely possible that once a seed is planted, you begin to see it grow in many aspects of your life and is less coincidence than thematic, if only for a short time. Regardless, at dinner with close friends, the upcoming road trip was discussed when one friend offered that she was envious of our plans to drive to Alaska and then to Panama, reflecting that she was happy to envision more time with grandchildren and lead the relatively quiet life she leads but believing that she “should” want more travel and exploration as part of her future.

Justice, Equity and Dignity

Later in the week, due to circumstances too tangential to this blog to mention here, Roque shared with me that he has led his life according to three principals: justice, equity and dignity.  With all of the time that we have spent together, and with the myriad conversations and topics we have discussed, it seemed somewhat remarkable that Roque never shared this before with me – at least, in this particular way.  If you knew Roque, it would be no surprise to  hear him articulate these specific principals since he walks the talk in every fiber of his being.  What was most intriguing to me about his articulation was how much this resonated with me in connection with the earlier “should” conversation when my friend mentioned her envy about the trip that Roque and I are planning.

Discarding the “Shoulds”

To me, among the most important aspects of our impending retirement and road trip, including the plan to expatriate to Panama, is that we have largely discarded the “should” from our thinking and focused on our lodestars.  And while Roque’s principals of justice, equity and dignity may seem somewhat disconnected from the concept of “should” or, frankly, expatriating to Panama via an overland adventure, they struck a chord with me by how important it is to be guided by an internal compass and how retirement, if not before, is a perfect time to discard the “shoulds.”

Roque’s guiding principals suggest an outward approach to those who he has sought to serve but they can and, of course, are, his internal guideposts as well.  I might choose different words or, even, different principals.  But whatever they are, they have guided me in all that I do and all that I am, much as they do for everyone else.  My connection with Roque, his with me, and with the people who are dear and important to us, are cemented by our lodestars and the power of those connections are, I believe, stronger or weaker depending upon how closely our lodestars match with others in our lives.  I see this in nearly every interaction I have and it helps me to understand why I feel the powerful connections to near-strangers and, sometimes, the distance I have with close relatives and co-workers with whom I spent enormous periods of time.

Alongside these principals, however, at least for me, has always been the “should.” The “should” has often competed with my internal lodestars and, perhaps embarrassingly, has sometimes taken over – not to the compromise of any of those principals I hold dear – but certainly when it comes to being true to myself.

With my friends who have apologized for how long it’s been since we saw each other, I have always said that no apology is necessary, further noting that the way that we spend our lives is often the best snapshot on what we truly value the most. Whether it is family, career, leisure activities or nothing at all, I think that we might benefit by paying more attention to the things that actually drive us rather than some sense of “should” coming from external sources.

Whether the “shoulds” come to us because of our birth order, or because we are products of our generation, or due to our gender, it is worth reminding ourselves that whatever leads us internally requires no apologies.  I say this, in part, with the hope that if I repeat this mantra often enough, I will believe it more fervently with every reciting.  If Roque and I followed our “shoulds,” it likely would not have resulted in a decision to expatriate or to overland to Alaska and Panama. Roque has admonished me from time to time that what I characterize as “selfishness” is more self-focus.  That resonates for me, even if I am still trying it on for size, since self-focus requires serious inward attention to those things that drive me and fulfill my soul.

Whether one prefers the company of grandchildren, or the excitement of the unseen road, or the peace of time at home with family and friends, we should listen carefully to our inner voices and substitute the compelling driving forces within for those things that we allow to influence our considered and careful pursuits.

Roque and I are unsure how it will feel to be on the road, away from familiar things and the people who are the cornerstones of our footing. But for us, this feels like the right thing to do. If it does not evolve into what we are hoping for, we can always turn back.  For those who are not so impelled, I offer this blog to travel virtually with us.