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

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How We Roll – Part 2

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Robert Louis Stevenson

Today, we are traveling from Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, by train en route to Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Nearly everything here in SE Asia is different for us here: the language. The terrain. The foods. The manner of dress. Right hand driving cars driving on the “wrong” side of the road. The prevalent religion(s). The architecture. The currency. The time difference.

We have discovered that our initial reactions to a place often focus on the things that are different. And then, there is this natural evolution that allows us to focus on the things that are similar to our prior experiences. As this happens, anxiety turns into excitement and concern melts into enlightenment and enjoyment. It is a beautiful process to watch as it unfolds and it convinces is that we can handle this. we just need to breathe and put one foot in front of the next.

When we made the 20 month road trip from the US to Alaska to Panama, we learned quickly that it would be impossible for us to fully plan a fixed itinerary for a trip of that duration. We opted to create a very rough itinerary of planned stops and when necessary, to pace ourselves accordingly. When we reached one destination, we started looking forward to the next one or two stops and made arrangements for that stop on the fly. This worked pretty well, with few hiccups along the way.

Emboldened with those experiences, we decided to follow a similar method of travel and planning for our time in Southeast Asia. In advance of our departure, we read about the region generally, focused a little on a general outline of places (mostly c) where we knew we wanted to visit, roughed out an itinerary along a general time line and began from there. We left the US with round trip tickets from Washington, DC to Bangkok, spaced 6 months apart, a reservation at a hotel in Bangkok and two accommodations on Bali, where we traveled first, choosing Bali as the place where we would celebrate our wedding anniversary. Knowing that we had 30 days to stay in Indonesia, we began to sketch out a plan for Indonesia that included the islands of Bali, Java and Sumatra as our primary focus.

On this trip to Southeast Asia, we decided to travel independently without our beloved Gertie and Wolfie or their local surrogates. While it is possible to overland in Asia, we wanted to try a different travel style and opted to travel using public forms of transportation, including planes, trains, cars and boats. (Due to motion sickness issues, buses are largely not an option for us). As of this writing, we have been able to make all of our travel reservations on our own, except for the train tickets from Surabaya to Yogyakarta where we relied upon help from hotel staff.

We believe that advance planning for a trip of this duration, like our earlier road trip, is difficult if not impossible. So, once we have landed in a place, we turn to many different resources to fine tune our experience there. We rely on traditional travel guides such as Lonely Planet, Fodors, Frommers, and Rough Guides. We use various travel apps and websites, travel blogs, hotel personnel, personal recommendations, travel magazines and more. We watch travel videos on YouTube and Travel Channel. We watch Anthony Bourdain. We always rely on professional tour guides when visiting places that benefit from detailed explanations, insights and decent English interpretations. We speak with taxi drivers, waiters and tour guides for recommendations. We try, when it is possible, to take people up on their offers of an introduction to their “sister’s-cousin’s-ex-stepfather-by-marriage who lives in (fill in the place).” We try to absorb it all and we try to know and honor our limits and our interests — just because a 28 (or 35 or 50) year old recommends a cave tubing trip or a wooden cable car over the ocean (Timang Beach Gondola) or a 6 hour driving tour to a volcanic crater to watch the sunrise doesn’t mean that we must do this as well. After all, we are 61 and 65. We live by a rule that it makes no sense to take on unnecessary risk, adversity, danger or physical rigor if it will jeopardize our trip, our health or our marriage.

Often, we have found that insights into a local culture come from unexpected things and places. Wandering a local shopping mall allows one to see how people dress, treat their children, respect their elders, and spend their shopping dollars. Eating in that mall’s version of a food court allows you to see how even US branded fast food restaurants are infused with local flavor. Going to the movies exposes you to movie trailers, commercials and public service announcements the likes of which you would never see in your home country and which shed light on local traditions. Riding on a local touring shuttle introduces you to local people who may exchange information in a more intimate and revealing way than you will ever get from a book or a tour operator.

We haven’t devised a term that really captures this way of travel — one of us refuses to call ourselves backpackers because we really aren’t traveling in the style that is often connoted by that term. Instead of hostels, we choose to stay in hotels and serviced apartments and villas. Our “budget” is lavish compared to traditional backpackers and yet we are cost conscious and try to stay within an amount less than what many on packaged tours would spend on a daily basis. While we like to eat locally, we haven’t eaten yet from a street cart, although that is certainly in our future. And while we have eaten burgers and one memorable special “high end” meal at Room4Dessert in Ubud, we have primarily eaten the cuisine of our host country. When we read blogs of travelers who have written of their time in (or about) Southeast Asia, nearly all of them are budget backpackers or high end tour and travel companies (and the magazine writers who travel with them). We fall somewhere in between.

Regardless of what name you give us, we can share that we love this way of travel. We also realize that we are among a small group of people who have the time, the resources and the inclination to travel as we do, meandering, absorbing, and taking home more memories than things.

It has been jarring and strange and a little scary at moments. In this part of the world, we are in the minority in many respects. When we hear English being spoken, more often than not, the voice is from Australia or India. We cannot rely on American sensibilities such as the rights of pedestrians, rights of way, or the right to free speech. Instead of being awakened by the crowing of roosters, the first sounds we hear in the morning, like the last sounds we hear at night, are the prayers from the local mosques during this month of Ramadan. Without Wolfie and Gertie with us, we do not have the respite afforded by being in our own space, where everything is familiar within even when everything outside is not. Here, we need to find our own space and the peace that restores us in different ways.

In the words of the Muslim scholar and explorer, Idn Battuta, “Traveling – it makes you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” When we realized that our stories were becoming stale, we knew it was time for an infusion of new ones to share and to cherish. So, off we went to travel again.

We look forward to sharing more stories here with you.

Tiles – House of Sampoerna, Surabaya
Even in Indonesia, we are reminded of Panama
Heroes Monument, Surabaya
Seminyak Beach, Bali
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Ubud, Bali
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Ubud, Bali

Golden Buddha Temple, Bangkok

Golden Buddha, Bangkok

Lumphini Park, Bangkok

Making the Days Count

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More than a month ago, we started a draft of this post during a time when we were entertaining friends at our home for dinner parties and happy hours as well as hosting guests from Canada, New York and Austria.  In between then and now, we have had many lunch, happy hour and dinner outings, enjoyed the Boquete Jazz Festival Garden Party, visited a local orchid finca (twice), played Team Trivia and bridge card games with friends, traveled to Panama City and camped in Wolfie both to and from,  celebrated a birthday, taken thrice weekly yoga classes, continued our Spanish language studies and more.  While we are beyond the time of the year when Panama celebrates its independence, when the roads are filled with the traffic of visitors who come to see the parades and the Boquete Flower and Coffee festival and more, there are the usual special events as well as the weekly events that make life in Boquete as rich and busy as one cares to makes his or her life.

As we have noted before, life here in Boquete is easy for us.  The climate is incredible, the roads are good, the infrastructure works reasonably well and the cost of living is affordable.  The scenery is breathtaking, even during the dry season, the flora and fauna is diverse.  Food selection is broad and many foods are grown and sold locally.  People, locals and expats alike, are friendly and helpful. There have been moments that have challenged us — and there have been tasks that have nearly brought us to our knees.  But, our time here in Boquete has definitely allowed us to return to a state of plenty that was not usually possible on the road.  What we felt we lacked the most on the road was a sense of community; here in Boquete, the sense of community is strong and vibrant.

We have settled so well and so completely into our expat lives in Panama that we sometimes have a difficult time remembering “those people” who took that epic 20 month, 60,000 mile journey through 10 countries before landing here.  It is impossible for us to see if the trip changed us in any sustaining way.   But we do believe that with every mile driven and with every waterfall, shoreline or glacier viewed, we found the inner parts of us becoming untethered from the roles of our earlier lives.  

For us, the journey in and through different places becomes more than the observation of new vistas since it importantly allows for views inside us as much as outside.  Perhaps this is the essence of the feeling of wanderlust.  Our yearning for discovery – inside and out – pulls us in the direction of the road again and so we are leaving our easy life in Boquete for a trip to Southeast Asia for the next several months.  Now that we have established our residency here in Panama, long-term house rental in hand, and vehicles imported, we have our home base from which we can resume our travels.  At moments, it does seem a bit soon to leave the comfort of our home and community here in Boquete, but we vowed when we retired to continue our travels while we had the stamina, patience, health and excitement to do so.  And so, we are off again – first to the US to visit with friends and family and then from there to Thailand, where we will launch our SE Asia travels.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said that “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”  And so, we return to our nomadic lifestyle again, in search of new stories, new views of the world that humble and inform us, and to allow the experiences to make their marks upon our memories, and our bodies and our hearts.

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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?

 

Reflections on Two Months Gone

Unbelievably, two months have now passed since we set out with Gertie packed to the gills for the beginning of our trip. As we wrote about earlier, the excess weight in gear packed into Gertie was solved by renting and hauling a UHaul for the first couple of weeks, storing the items in Florida in a small storage unit and solved again when we returned to Deerfield Beach to retrieve the stowed belongings after we acquired our new camper, Wolfie.  On one hand, it feels like forever since we were working in our jobs and preparing to leave; on the other hand, it feels new as can be – like an extended vacation. Still, in the back of our brains, we feel that we kind of know that it’s not a vacation and it’s our new life and with every day, this realization brings a contented smile.

We set out with a rough itinerary of places we wanted to see and a timeline with only a few fixed dates: New Orleans for Mardi Gras and summer to travel through the Canadian Rockies into Alaska.  Otherwise, we purposely eschewed making advance reservations anywhere, which we found to be somewhat challenging while in Florida for the 6 weeks or so preceding our scheduled arrival in New Orleans due to the abundance of RVers and other campers taking advantage of wintering in Florida.  While making reservations for campsites – tent or trailer – in Florida proved time-consuming and while we could not always stay in a particular location or stay at a campground as long as we may have wanted under ideal circumstances, making arrangements on the fly has its blessings. We ended up seeing parts of the country that we may not have otherwise selected and some of those have been among the most beautiful and surprisingly enjoyable and have met people we might have missed.

Life with Wolfie

Life with Wolfie, our trailer home for the past month, is good.  In him, we have all that we need and love the convenience of cooking without digging through the “bear box” housing pantry items, or without hunting for the spices within the camp kitchen as it is now all neatly housed within organized (mostly) cabinets in the trailer. With Wolfie, packing up camp and moving onward is a snap and we have that routine pretty much down pat.  Having an indoor bathroom is dreamy and being able to sit at the dinette to eat or work at the computer is easy and comfy.  We have places for our clothes, and our “office” equipment as well as our toiletries and sundry items that are accessible and don’t require digging through boxes to retrieve.

Technology needs remain a work in progress as cell signals and campground wifi (when it exists) can be quite spotty but we have learned new tricks to overcome these deficiencies when they arise (at least, thus far). We previously added a $30 digital antenna to our gear which often will allow for watching local network TV. We added an Apple AV cable that allows for our iPhones or iPads to connect to the TV if we have downloaded Netflix shows or movies in advance or if we have service strong enough to stream from an app.  The Apple TV, which we believed we would be able to use by connecting it to the T-Mobile data on Roque’s iPad, has proven to be largely useless.  The data signal on the iPad, which is sufficient often to permit internet browsing, does not appear to be strong enough to support streaming on the Apple TV.  And when our cell phone signals are strong enough to support streaming, if the Apple TV is using TMobile data, we cannot stream to the Apple through AirPlay since both devices (Apple TV and phone or iPad) need to be using the same data stream.  The AV cable solved the problem by taking the Apple TV out of the equation.  Now, it mostly collects dust and awaits its final home in Panama.

There are many ongoing adaptations still, though.  We wrote briefly of the limit of our gray and black water tanks in Wolfie and found it essential to add a portable waste storage tank to our gear, which allows us to empty the tanks on an as-needed basis to bring to the dump station, freeing up the tanks while we are stationary for more than a couple of days. The alternative, for those of you not familiar with the more unsavory aspects of life in a camper, would require hooking up Wolfie every couple of days just to tow him to the dump station.  The portable tank can be towed (I kid you not) behind the truck for emptying at the dump station, leaving Wolfie happily in his cradle of wheel chocks and stabilizers.  It’s not the most pleasant of household chores to bring the portable tank to the dump station but it is a small price to pay for staying put for a longer period and for the convenience of indoor plumbing.

And while we adore having a queen size bed without the obstacle of cot frames separating us while we sleep, we have realized that our trailer mattress is a piece of crap- hard as a rock and shorter than the conventional queen size mattress.  Its short stature is not much of a problem for me but Roque isn’t as vertically challenged as I am and while not an extremely tall man, finds that his feet stick off the end of the mattress at night.

We discovered, quite by accident, that the crappy mattress dilemma is universal.  While camping on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, where we took Wolfie to stay while we headed into Mardi Gras, we were included by our neighboring campers in a day /night of beach going and campfire relaxing.  With these 3 families the subject of the mattress arose and much to our surprise, we learned that they ALL hated their mattresses.  So, it seems that camper manufacturers install the most basic of mattresses in campers and slowly but surely, owners learn that they need to replace their mattresses with other ones IF they want to get a good night’s sleep.

Armed with this information and the new-found knowledge of not being alone in this island of misfit mattresses, we started to research replacement RV mattresses and happily learned (from website comments) that RVers – from high-end Class A motor homes to pop up tent campers – often need to commit to replacing their mattresses.  Through the internet, we also learned that the mattress we have is a “queen short,” explaining the feet-off-the-end problem that Roque is experiencing.  (It is interesting to note that RV dealers proudly boast of queen size beds in RVs without disclosing that while they are queen size in width, they are Sharon-sized in terms of length!).

We were also happy to learn that replacing the mattress with a gel foam mattress for Wolfie will not cost and arm and a leg and NOTHING like a conventional mattress for a conventional home.  The obstacle that looms ahead in this purchase, however, is being somewhere where the new mattress can be shipped to us or shipped to a store for pick up. When one lives on the road with a snail mail address in another state (Florida in our case), one cannot simply do the simple Amazon-thing since acceptance of  delivery of something as large as a mattress – even one that is shipped vacuum sealed for later “inflating” when the package is opened — is not something we want to impose on a relative or friend in an upcoming state (as we have with smaller items).  This means postponing the purchase and timing it so that it can be delivered when we are WITH the friends or relatives.  Until then, the sleep will just have to suffer and we will just have to remind ourselves that hard as it is, the mattress is an improvement over the two cots pushed together.

So, lest you think that we are sitting fat and happy in the comfort of our new home on wheels, we are still modifying and adjusting and I suspect that our future posts will have subjects similar to this one.  Yes, there are moments when we wish that the purchasing of stuff would end but mostly the moments are filled with appreciation for the quiet and peace of our life on the road. There is always a new path to walk and new animals to see.  There are bike routes to try and local foods to explore.  There are people to meet and internet radio stations to stream through the Bluetooth to the outside sitting area beneath our retractable awning while we enjoy our books, newspapers, Scrabble, Backgammon and Chess games or as background music to our conversations about where to explore today.  There are beaches where we sun and nap and new grocery stores to explore when we shop for the days’ meals. We have found that we can be as solitary or as social as we please and that suits us beautifully, as does each other’s company, which never fails to complete us (still).  Life is good.

Finding Our Stride

One of the greatest discoveries so far has been that we CAN slow down, so much, in fact, that we cut our time in New Orleans short and decided to return to Wolfie a day earlier than planned following Mardi Gras. Entering New Orleans on Lundi Gras (the Monday before Fat Tuesday), turned out to be perfect timing as we were able to watch Monday’s Proteus and Orpheus Krewe parades as well as participating in Zulu’s Lundi Gras festival on the waterfront near the French Quarter.  The parades were spectacular affairs and each Krewe brings a different spectacle to the streets. On Mardi Gras, the parades began at 8 am and we saw the “follows” floats from smaller Krewes still rolling down St. Charles Avenue onto Canal Street as late as 5 pm!  Many stay at their spots for all of these hours; we spent time wandering different streets, observing the differences in the crowds from one location to another.  Having amassed huge quantities of Mardi Gras beads at a parade in Ocean Springs, Mississippi on the Friday before Mardi Gras, we made little effort to collect new ones in New Orleans and were fascinated by the BAGS of beads and other “throws” collected by parade attendees (what do they DO with all that stuff after the parades???).  Still, we were thrilled when Roque caught beads thrown by hometown boy Harry Connick, Jr. from his float in the Krewe of Orpheus parade and when Roque caught a prized hand painted coconut from the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras, which coconut now graces our dining room table in a plastic Proteus cup also one-handed by Roque.

While in New Orleans, we dined at Mother’s for breakfast (The Katz’s — of sorts – of New Orleans), returned to Cochon for dinner (as memorable as our visit there nearly 4 years ago) and visited Compère Lapin which may have been the highlight of our trip, as the cuisine, a fusion of West Indian/Cajun/Italian prepared by a classically trained (French tradition) female chef from St. Lucia, was fresh, beautiful and so flavorful that had we had larger appetites, we would have tried everything on the menu.  Her menu expresses the following philosophy, which I found perfectly matched our meal : ” Meals aren’t about trends, shock value, or opulence. Meals are about moments, memories and those who surround you at your table. We believe in the complexity of simplicity, and the power of pure flavors. Our histories, vast and varied, deserve to be memorialized and romanticized by dishes that at once remind us of home and transport us to somewhere new.” These restaurants were wonderful treats and a lovely departure from cooking and we were thrilled with these choices although in New Orleans, we likely could have tried others with the same results as few cities honor food (or do it as well) as does New Orleans.

The two days and nights in New Orleans, through this season of revelry, were enough for us and we both decided – independent of one another – that we wanted to leave the city to return to the campground. We have nested in Wolfie completely and have added touches that make it feel like home. Our Zulu coconut. Our Cynthia-made, Strip Club endorsed quilt. Our yoga mat as floor runner. Our zero gravity outdoor lounge chairs.  These and more make Wolfie our home and we are loving it.

We now know that moving along the road with Wolfie should be done in smaller spurts, and unlike our last cross-country trip where we drove upwards of 8-10 hours at times, we are now trying to travel no more than 4 hours on a travel day.  While slower in pace, we are in no hurry to exhaust ourselves or to push onward when being here — wherever here is – is bound to bring more beauty, fresh discoveries, and new friends.  Our next stops — Lake Charles, LA, Galveston Island, TX, Houston and then Dallas – lie ahead with boudin, cracklin’ and crawfish and who knows what else to be sampled.  Whatever lies ahead, we look forward to it and will share it later with you.

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Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras
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New Orleans, here we come!
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Gallier Hall (former City Hall), St. Charles Avenue along parade route

Be Safe Y’All

We were told by our camping neighbors here at Fontainbleau State Park to “be safe” when we left to go to Mardi Gras.  We swiftly learned that the “be safe” admonishment was not to be taken literally as I was able to confirm with our hotel desk clerk that folk from Louisiana ALL say “be safe” in the way that we might say “see you later.”  So this blog will close with well wishes to you and hopes that y’all will be safe.

How We Will Roll

Why We Love to Camp

Throughout our years of planning for this road trip, we had considered many ways to camp including whether to buy some sort of camper. Most of the folks traveling the Pan American highway have some sort of self contained camper, whether factory or homemade. We opted for the truck and tent for many different reasons. We love tent camping and one night, when at the Flamingo campground in Everglades National Park, at the far southwest tip of Florida (and 38 miles from the visitor center), we slept with the tent rain flap open, allowing for an amazing view of the stars from our cots.  Since we were so far away from light pollution, the sky was spectacular and combined with the night sounds of insects and frogs, I was filled with a sense of peace and well being that made it clear why I love to camp in a tent — other than a thin piece of nylon separating us from the outdoors, we were as close to being a PART of the outdoors as we could be without sleeping outside (not a viable prospect given the mosquitos there!).

It was kind of a source of pride, at least for me, to think that we could tent camp throughout this trip, at least in the US and Canada, but we met some people from Alaska and Oregon while in the Everglades, who forewarned of the possibility of being prevented from accessing some national park campgrounds without a hardsided camper due to wildlife concerns.  Despite our efforts to research this online, we had been unable to find out much about tent camping limitations. It was a really horrifying thought to consider arriving somewhere – such as Yellowstone or Glacier or Denali- only to be told that they would not allow us to tent camp there. Combining that with many other considerations such as basic creature comforts like having an inside toilet and real bed, we again started to research camper trailers.

Kismet struck when we arrived in the Ft Myers area.  We thought that if we decided to buy one, it made sense for us to do it in Florida so we could ensure having it registered in our new home state. In the middle of our research into various small trailer campers, we learned there was an RV show in Ft Myers which we thought would give us a chance to look at many makes and models and to see many of the ones we had already researched online, saving us the hassle of going from dealer to dealer to see a variety of models.

Introducing Wolfie

We were only interested in a smallish trailer but felt that it made no sense to get anything unless it had a real bed and “full” bath including toilet and shower. I was intrigued by the little “pod” trailers as well as “teardrop” ones but they were just too small and impractical as most have just inside beds (and outside kitchens which are clever but we already have a full outside kitchen set up) so we had to go larger than a pod. We jointly liked one model much better than all the others because it had an”walk around” queen bed (meaning that one person doesn’t have to climb over the other to get in or out of bed) and a full bath. In the one we selected – the Forest River Cherokee Wolf Pup 16 FQ (photos of similar models and floor plan of our model here: http://www.forestriverinc.com/brochures/2017/2017wolfpupbrochure.pdf),  we have tiny tub (big enough for a grandchild) with a shower, toilet and even a sink with vanity. So within the whopping 16′ of trailer, we have a walkaround  queen bed, full bath, tiny dinette and kitchen (stove, fridge, sink and microwave). We also have ac and heat. The ac requires being at a campsite with electricity but the heat runs on propane.

All of this means than we now have a tiny camper that not only allows for a comfortable lifestyle when at a campsite but will also allow us to boondock (camping without electricity or water at a site) if we find ourselves in remote areas where we cannot find a “real” campground or hotel room, which I anticipate will be the case in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska.

Additionally, the storage space and cargo capacity of the trailer permitted us to return to Deerfield Beach for the stuff we had to put in a storage facility because it was too heavy to carry in the truck, which would save us the storage fees as well as have the gear we wanted for starting our life in Panama. And we also considered that once we get to Panama, having the trailer means that we won’t feel quite so pressured to find a rental home since we will have a place to sleep and we may ultimately be able to rent out the trailer as an AirBnB option like a casita on the property.

The downside is that towing a trailer is more difficult than just driving a truck and reduces our fuel economy. But it’s a fairly simple process to set up and break down the trailer when we are in a campsite and we unhook the truck for the duration of our stay and then hop into the truck or onto our bikes while the trailer stays put. We have reduced the camp set up and break down time to a third of what it took to set up our tent and screen tent with kitchen, cots, clothes and other necessaries.

Another downside of having a small trailer is the small holding tanks (to say nothing of learning the “art” of emptying out the holding tanks).  We have learned that we are likely to exceed our tanks’ holding capacity when we stay at one campsite longer than a couple of nights and that means that we have to find a way to get to a dump station in the park midway through our stay.  If this requires hooking up and moving the trailer, it’s rather self defeating when the beauty of staying put for longer than a couple of days requires moving just to dump the tanks.  Luckily, there are solutions for this dilemma: portable tanks that allow for us to empty excess gray and black water and haul it in this wheelie-device to the dump station.  So, it’s likely that we will be making a purchase of one of these today.

Researching Campgrounds

For any of you who are experienced RVrs, you already know that locating campgrounds with “full” hookups is the optimal choice; we have chosen to avoid RV parks for several reasons and thus, “full” hookups (water, electric and sewer at the site) are less frequently available and snatched up quickly when they exist.  Unlike my experience camping in Maryland, albeit in tents, we were delighted to learn that all Florida state park campsites provide electric and water hook ups, which were convenient as heck when in a tent and fairly essential – even if not critical – in a trailer.  The same appears to be true in many other state parks and the ones we reserved in Mississippi and Louisiana for the end of this month, will provide electricity and water (and in Mississippi, sewer as well).  Within federal lands, electric sites are harder to come by and few, if any, have full hookups.  Luckily, we located a resource on the internet that provides really comprehensive information about state campgrounds and their facilities within their state park system.

There is something of an art to researching campgrounds.  No two are alike, even within a statewide system.  (Further, no two sites are alike and many Florida state park sites vary tremendously in terms of size.)  Since we are trying to stay on public lands, we have located city, county, state and various federal campgrounds and in our 12 campgrounds so far, have stayed on county, state and federal lands  Alas, there is not one reservation system for all.  Some states use reserveamerica.com; most federal lands allow for reservations on recreation.gov.  Both of these omit county campgrounds (at least so far in our travels). Finding county campgrounds requires knowing the county where you are headed (oy! yet ANOTHER open tab in my browser!).  Some parks allow reservations online as well as “first-come-first-served” walk ins.  Sometimes, the online reservation systems shows no available sites but a phone call to the park results in victory!

Another drawback to the online reservation systems is locating a “good” site.  When we were in a tent, proximity to the bathhouse was a priority.  And while that is no longer as critical while in a trailer, other pieces of information rise to the top of the list:  Size. Drive in versus back in.  Width (helpful when backing in). Length.  Location within the campground (i.e., not next to dump sites, electrical transformers, trees/hedges for privacy, etc.).  It’s helpful to look at the campground map to try to determine better spots but it’s not always easy to locate where the dumpsters are, for example, to avoid living next to them.  Perhaps this explains why experienced RVrs often return to the same campgrounds year after year, armed with information on their preferred campsite location.  If this sounds a bit daunting, you are right – at times, it makes me feel like my head is about to explode with all of the mental checklists about what park and site to choose.  So far, however, we have been delighted with pretty much every campground we have selected and often have benefitted from having to move from site to site when reservations do not allow for consecutive night stays on the same site.

We have also learned that there are websites for boondocking locations (!) that include the somewhat famous “camping in a Walmart parking lot,” (sometimes allowed but not always), truck stops, rest areas and even on people’s private land!  There are also little known campgrounds located in Florida’s Water Management Districts and US National Forests that are managed by the USDA and not the Park Service.  I’m fairly sure that there are books on this subject and perhaps compendia on the internet but I’ve not located them (yet).  And before I forget, never assume that ALL US National Parks are reservable on recreation.gov: I learned a couple of weeks ago that Denali (and perhaps others) use a completely separate reservation system run by a concessionaire!  reservedenali.com. Bottom line: look, read, study, research and do it all over again to cover all bases.

Despite the mind bending work of researching and reserving a good campsite, the rewards are many, especially when you arrive at a park and learn that YOUR campsite is waterfront with its own private beach, as is the one we write from today.  Hard to beat and well worth the work!

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St Andrews State Park, Site 112

 

It’s been a little more than a week since we picked up our trailer, now dubbed “Wolfie,” and we have no regrets. Earlier this week, we awoke to 38 degree weather and we were able to put on the heat to get the chill out of the trailer even though we slept without it and with the windows open. We now have 2 fridges (one in the trailer which runs on propane while in the road and one in the back of the truck which runs off our solar panel and solar generator) and were able to empty out the backseat of the truck so we can now truly have passengers should people take us up in our offers to join us for a portion of the trip. If and when this happens, Roque and I will sleep in the tent and leave the trailer for any guests. (THIS MEANS YOU). We have an inside kitchen and one that we can set up outside. We have all of our clothes now in the storage holds of the trailer which may help when we get invited to some black tie event (unlikely) or wedding (possible?). We have a stereo system inside complete with DVD player connected to a wall mounted TV and while cable or satellite TV stations are unavailable, we have, on more than one occasion, had data or wifi connections decent enough to allow for streaming on our iPads or computers, and  sometimes through the TV!  We still wake to the sounds of the birds and often early enough to see the sun rise, always from the comfort of our own campsite.  And waking in the middle of the night to use the restroom no longer involves dressing, locating a flashlight and heading off to a bathhouse.

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“Wolfie”
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Our Yard
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Our dinette (for 2) or convertible bed (for 1 or 2 little ones)
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Walk-around queen bed with beautiful handmade quilt by Cynthia, gift from my friends, the “Strip Club”
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Our kitchen: microwave, sink, fridge and stove

 

The adjustments continue, as do the purchases for stuff.  But we have no complaints as life is so good (as the photos demonstrate):

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Sunrise from our campsite, St Andrews State Park
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Lake Kissimmee State Park
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Lake Kissimmee State Park
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Lake Kissimmee State Park
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St Andrews State Park Marina and Pier
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Another beautiful sky

3 Weeks and Still Going Strong

Greetings From Deerfield Beach, Florida

A lot has happened since the beginning of our road trip on December 26 and the passage of time since the last post, while not planned, has given us time for reflection on our constant learning curve over these past 3 weeks.  Had we posted the earlier draft of this blog post, it would have been filled with details of our departure and the packing and loading of the truck/rig (Gertie, for short).  This now seems like a distant memory, worthy of a mention but not of an entire post.  The learning curve has been constant and reminds us that this trip will teach us a great deal about many things, not the least of which is how to NOT over-react and how time provides the gift of calm reflection.

To Pack or Not To Pack

When we were organizing our belongings for the trip, we KNEW that we were going to leave on the trip with Gertie looking like she was on the set of the Beverly Hillbillies with items loaded inside the cab, the truck cap, the roof and a hitch carrier on the back.  We laughed about how we would look but patted ourselves on the back about how much stuff we would be able to transport: fridge and solar power system within the cab, camping gear on top with the bikes, emergency equipment and tools on the hitch carrier and loads of long term items, designed to start our life in Panama, stored within the truck cap (the bed of the truck within the cap).

Truck packed, we departed on December 26 and headed west toward the first of our planned stops. We were no more than an hour into our drive when we realized that even after 2 years of trip planning, we missed the obvious: did we load Gertie beyond her payload weight limits?  OMG – what were we thinking when we believed we could transport hundreds of pounds of belongings, secured in huge 55 gallon storage boxes, all the way from DC to Panama, when we wouldn’t even USE them for years to come??? In the 3 boxes were kitchen items (Kitchenaid mixer, Cuisinart, pots and pans and more), clothes (intended for use in our new home but not along the road), and general household items (TV, stereo equipment, tools, etc.). The boxes were so heavy that to load one on top of the other in Gertie, we had to use a piece of plywood as a ramp to slide on atop the other. (Later, we stopped to weigh Gertie at a certified scale at a truck stop and learned that we were nearly 50% over our payload weight rating).Panic set in and we immediately considered options such as stopping and returning to Baltimore to store these boxes for future shipping (rejected due to the sheer hassle of unloading and carrying/schlepping so many pounds of stuff to the basement) and shipping these boxes to friends in Mexico or Panama to accept them in our absence (rejected for multiple reasons). When emotions calmed and we (more “I” than “we”) were able to think more rationally, we resolved to rent a UHaul trailer to transport the boxes to Florida (since Gertie’s towing capacity greatly exceeds her payload limits) where we would rent a small storage unit to warehouse the belongings for future shipping to Panama.

The immediate solution had its downsides – schlepping a trailer up and down the mountainous roads in the Great Smoky Mountains and surrounds definitely affected our fuel consumption and hauling a trailer sure limits parking pretty much everywhere — but it did resolve the weight issue and we found a temporary solution to the “scheppability”problem by dropping the trailer at each campground along the route so we could travel locally freed of the additional appendage (thanks to the purchase of a bottle jack which allowed us to raise the trailer off the hitch when we were stationary). Whew.

Logistics solved, we traveled westward through stops in Louisville, Owensboro and Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Nashville, Chattanooga and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Great Smoky National Park and Asheville, North Carolina, Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga and then into St. Augustine, Cape Canaveral and Deerfield Beach in rapid succession at a pace that seemed like we were still traveling on a vacation with a finite beginning and end dates as compared to a pace that being retired should permit.  The problem was not our itinerary, which was intentionally open-ended in terms of dates and times, but mindset: learning to slow down was clearly going to be as much of a challenge as originally anticipated.  (Breathe, Sharon, breathe!).

In fairness to my hypercritical view of myself, the first week or so of the trip took us through locations where the weather would not allow us to camp so we were staying in hotels. Anxious to start our camping and avoid the unnecessary sterility of hotel stops, we were delighted when we arrived in Charleston, SC to weather that was nice enough to allow us to set up camp.  Without a fixed itinerary, we were making campground reservations on the fly as we approached our next stops and in SC and Georgia, we were extremely lucky in locating wonderful campgrounds that provided beautiful sites, equipped with electricity and water at each camp site (James Island Country Park in Charleston, SC and Skidaway Island State Park near Savannah, GA).  By the time we reserved our campsite in St. Augustine (Anastasia State Park), we were lucky to find one night’s availability but nothing longer so after joining (new) friends, Diana and Jack Rawle for dinner (Diana and Jack’s son, Andrew, was Sophie’s boyfriend at Drexel and following her passing, were great emotional support to me, via email, and we were excited to meet them face-to-face and thank them for their years of support and long-distance support) and walking in historic St. Augustine, we headed out for Cape Canaveral to visit the Kennedy Space Center.  The incredible KSC more than compensated for the shantytown feel of our campground in Titusville, FL (Mannatee Hammock County Park) so we were not unhappy to leave for our breakfast with DC-friend, Janet Samuelson, before heading south to Deerfield Beach and our home for the following 2 weeks at Quiet Waters Park.

Life here at Quiet Waters has been blessedly peaceful and relaxing. This county park’s campground is unlike any we have encountered before as each site is equipped with a platform tent, which is spacious and roomy, where each campsite backs onto ponds that provide water views.  The sites are large and well equipped and the campground and bathhouses are well maintained and clean and is conveniently located within easy bike or vehicle access to stores, movie theaters and parents (Phil and Naomi Benzil’s condo is in a community located right across the street from the park). The previous week was filled with “honey do’s” for Phil and Naomi, time spent with family, biking and easy-paced days.  This week will include more outings with friends, downtime and an opportunity to continue to practice slowing down.

It hardly feels like 3 weeks have passed since leaving on our trip and yet living in a brick-and-mortar home in DC/Baltimore seems like lifetime ago.  While the configuration of every campground is different and requires constant tweaking and adjustments for our nomadic camping life, every set-up and breakdown gets easier as we continue to shed ourselves of gear and add new things that we never thought about over the past 2 years of planning.  Some things have been much easier than we expected (among which were establishing our residency in Florida, complete with new drivers’ licenses and vehicle registration, was a breeze and took only several hours on our first day in Deerfield Beach and watching the season premier of “Homeland”) and some have been more challenging (slowing down among them). As of today, though, our spirits are high and our lodgings are perfect and we have retained our senses of humor and abilities to be flexible that have characterized us before and, we hope, into the future.

Some Interesting Unofficial Trip Stats to Date:

Miles driven: 2328

Driving Hours: 83

# of cities/locations visited: 14  (Hurricane, WV, Louisville, KY, Owensboro, KY, Mammoth Cave National Park, Nashville, Chattanooga, TN, Asheville, Great Smoky National Park), Gatlinburg, Charleston, SC, Savannah, GA, St. Augustine, FL, Titusville, FL and Deerfield Beach, FL)

# of friends/family Seen/Visited Along the Way: 7

# of PBJ sandwiches consumed for lunch: approximately 50

# of fuel stops: approximately 20 (mostly caused by tugging the trailer behind us and lots of highway travel during first 2 weeks)

# of propane canisters for lantern: 3 (or, at least portions of the 3 we brought with us)

# of items left behind accidentally: 1

# of times we’ve entertained at our campsite: 1 (dinner for Phil and Naomi last week)

# of laundromat stops: 1

# of times I’ve applied any make up along the trip: 2 (mascara only)

# of campgrounds with wifi: all of them (so far)

# of times we have shed/organized/reorganized gear : too many to count

Best along-the-road purchases: digital TV antenna (allows for viewing of local news and network shows when wifi is spotty), bottle jack (invaluable for dropping the UHaul at our campgrounds) and new bike rack (that allows for bikes on the back of Gertie – a plus after our roof-racked bikes picked up more than a little Spanish moss from low hanging trees in SC, Ga and northern Florida)

Best Experiences to date (not counting visits with friends/family): Kennedy Space Center (truly amazing) and the Mohammed Ali Center in Louisville (similarly amazing and awe-inspiring).

Best local foods eaten: ribs at 12 Bones in Ashville, she-crab soup at Roadside Seafood in Charleston, rock shrimp at Dixie Crossroads in Titusville, FL and fried catfish at Catfish Deweys in F. Lauderdale.

Some of the best photos along the way: (see below)

 

Clockwise from top left:Louisville Slugger Museum, Mammoth Cave historic entrance, Waterfront Park (downtown Charleston), Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Kennedy Space Center, biking with Phil in Deerfield Beach, FL, Quiet Waters Park view from tent, alligator in Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray, FL, Deerfield Beach, FL, view from Site 27, Quiet Waters Park in Deerfield Beach, FL, St. Augustine, Fl house lights, Charleston, SC architecture, downtown Asheville, NC and Great Smoky National Park.