My friend Jim, who I have known since the third grade, recently came to San Miguel for a visit. Could we make like old times and manage to get in and out of trouble? Well, with the help of a Mexico City police officer . . .
We’ve been home for over a year. The transition back to our pre-trip lives was difficult. As we ruminated in Nicaragua, we ruined our lives by hitting the open road for a year. We were no longer satisfied with the perfectly good house, our perfectly stable and financially secure jobs, and the perfectly fine public school education that Coconut and J were receiving. It was all too stifling and we recognized that though our situation is ideal in many ways, we don't want to live the same year for the next 40 years and call it a life. I guess that’s what you would call a midlife crisis.
This is the end. In the words of the somewhat famous and totally unpredictable Jim Morrison of The Doors, this is the end, my only friend, the end.
My family and I just completed a year-long overland adventure through Mexico and Central America. We left Virginia on August 1, 2015 and drove our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van - which we named Wesley - through Mexico and Central America. We’ve now landed softly at the family lake house in New York’s Catskill Mountains where we will take contemplative walks in the woods and frolic in the clear lake water before launching back at the end of the month into the hard work of being middle class Americans.
After driving nearly 14,000 miles in eleven months to Panama and back, Wesley had delivered us to Laredo, Texas, with 12 days to go 2,000 miles to NJ for my niece's baptism. With our spectacular border crossing in the rear view mirror, we found a Worldschoolers family north of Houston who is in the midst of selling their house and belongings in preparation for their own around- the-world-adventure. Israel, Michelle, and their three boys Joaquin, Jovani, and Judah, were gracious hosts who allowed us to use their beds, eat their food, swim in their pool, and stick around their house for two days while the epoxy we used to seal Wesleys’ leaky engine coolant recovery tank cured. This tank was the part that burst its seams while crossing into the U.S. and Israel talked me into taking the extra day to remove the part from the engine compartment and seal it rather than invest many dollars in extra coolant to keep the tank topped off during our drive home. It was a good call and has spared R and me a lot of anxiety during the long days of driving.
On Monday we crossed the border from Mexico to the United States at Laredo, Texas. This is the same border crossing we used in August 2015 to get from the US to Mexico to begin our year-long overland adventure. We would have liked to take a different route back to see new things but our second choice of crossing, at Brownsville, TX, is only accessible by Mexico Route 101. This road was recently dubbed the most dangerous highway in Mexico by NPR due to the proliferance of kidnappings and carjackings by bandits and organized crime gangs. We thought that being left naked in the desert would be a bad way to end our year of overland travel, though honestly, everything we have with us is threadbare from a year of constant use so would likely have no value to anyone. Only Wesley, our 1985 VW Westfalia, which has a brand new coat of paint and sparkles like a Kristy McNichol smile from “Little Darlings” would attract any attention.
When we first conceived this year-long fairy tale of an overland adventure, we anticipated arriving in Patagonia in Argentina after eleven months and 29 days of driving, hopping in a plane to D.C., and shipping Wesley back to Baltimore. The trip would have a clearly defined beginning – when we left Alexandria – and ending – when we got on a plane to go home.
San Miguel was founded by a Franciscan monk in 1542 and fortified as a Spanish garrison in 1555 to protect the new road from Mexico City to the silver center of Zacatecas. In 1826 it was renamed San Miguel de Allende after favorite son Ignacio Allende who was one of the conspirators that spearheaded the Mexican Revolution from Spain and had his head chopped off for his efforts. Not much else happened in town until 1938 when an art school was founded. The resulting arts scene attracted the famed beatniks who wrote poems and got drunk here in the 1950’s and put the city on the map as a destination for foreigners, which in turn attracted the 35,000 or so ex-pats who live here now. Finally, in 2016, Vanamos arrived in an effort to make more of our own history.
We were young and naive. Before we left on our year long overland trip through Mexico and Central America in our 1985 VW Westfalia camper van, we thought we could follow two very simple "road rules," that our kids would take an interest in learning, and that we would all come back fit and healthy.
Things did not go as planned.
In advance of our year on the road, we presented the Alexandria City Public School (ACPS) system with a thoughtful home school curriculum covering everything from animal migratory patterns to car mechanics that any self-motivated student would be thrilled and excited to study. ACPS stamped its approval and we went merrily on our way. What we didn’t consider was that we would not be bringing any self-motivated students along with us.
Since we left El Salvador on June 9 we have driven Wesely over 1,000 miles across Guatemala and Mexico and I’ve got the driver’s tan to prove it - my left forearm is as red as tomato soup. It’s not our style to blow through places so quickly, but at this point in our year long trip we are focused on getting back to Alexandria for better or for worse. Despite our accelerated pace, we’ve managed to squeeze some fun in between our long driving days.
We thought leaving behind our responsibilities and driving overland through the Americas in a 1985 VW Westfalia camper van would be endless servings of strawberries and cream. But it has turned out to be a lot harder than we expected. I often find myself thinking of what our new friend Claude said to me one night as we washed our dishes in San Cristobal, Mexico. Claude is Swiss and has been driving around the world with his wife for almost fifteen years. He said, “Everyone at home thinks we’re on vacation. But this is hard work.”
Now, to be sure, this is not work in the sense that my shift starts at 9 a.m. and the boss is going to be pissed if I’m late. One of the liberating things about this lifestyle is that we have the complete ability to do whatever we want. If we want to go to the waterfall to swim today we can. Or we can do it tomorrow. If we want to go to Mexico, or stay in Guatemala, the choice is ours.
We try to avoid cities because we hear they are more dangerous, we know there’s more traffic, and we want to go to sleep at night to the sounds of mountain streams and howling dogs not to the sound of honking horns and howling dogs. Sometimes we make exceptions. After leaving Nicaragua and driving all day through Honduras into El Salvador, we spent the next day driving a few hours into the mountains of El Salvador to the town of Perquin. The next day, I had already driven five hours towards our planned destination, and we were still two hours away. I was done. When I saw a sign for Santa Ana, a place I remembered reading about as being worth a visit, I asked R to check out our guidebook to see about it.
We finally left the comfort of Paul and Marisa’s front yard after spending 11 days going to the beach, riding bikes, going to a rodeo, eating home cooked meals, and making natural skin products. Coconut learned to make kombucha, a fermented non-alcoholic hippie drink, and got her own “scoby” to make more, and we even celebrated Paul’s birthday by taking him out to a restaurant in one of the first downpours of the rainy season.
Everyone got along easily and we could have stayed even longer with this generous, fun, and like-minded family but we’ve learned a few things by always being the last to leave the party. One of the things we’ve learned is that eventually you’ve got to leave the party.
We were excited to renew our club membership at Hulakai Hotel where we spent a great week on our first pass through Playa Maderas, Nicaragua, in March. So we were all disappointed when we pulled into the parking lot after a hot border crossing from Costa Rica and realized the hotel was closed for renovations for the week. It's the beginning of the low tourist season in Central America, in anticipation of the rainy season, and many businesses shut down during this time to repaint, refresh, and refurbish. Coconut and J took the news well, but given the extreme temperatures, refused to camp. We all needed a shower anyway, so R and I hadn't really considered that option except as a means to tease and torment the kids. Tyler, owner of Hulakai, took a few minutes from his family pool party to buy us a soda at his bar and recommend a beach front place called The L'il Aussie Hut.