Eating and Sleeping on the Road

Things to Know about Life on the Road

We left Alexandria, Virginia on August 1, 2015, in our 1985 VW Westphalia and spent nights in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas before finding ourselves at the U.S.-Mexican border in Laredo, Texas. When we crossed into Mexico on August 26, we expected to spend a month making our way to Belize and to be in Panama by Christmas. Happily, that plan didn’t work out and we spent the next 3 ½ months experiencing Mexico, which is now one of our favorite places. We even settled down in Oaxaca for a month when we rented a house, giving our “life on the road” some semblance of stability.

Nevertheless, our goal was to overland to South America in a year, and however dim that prospect looks at the moment – as I type this on January 11, 2016, we are more than five months into our twelve month trip but have only been in Mexico and Guatemala (we planned to have been through those two countries, as well as El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica by now, and waiting in Panama to ship our van to Colombia) - we plan to push southward until we have to come back north.

Since we left Oaxaca on November 29, we have been living out of the van more or less on a day-to-day basis. This has reminded us that overlanding is not the party that it may seem to be. As a fellow overlander said to me as we bellied up to the tiny bathroom sink to wash our dinner dishes, “People think we’re on vacation, but this is hard work.”

It’s not the 9 to 5 type of job, and we don’t get paid, but for all the fun it is to discover new places, it does involve some hard thought. With that in mind, we thought it would be fun to share how we go about our “daily work” – which consists of finding a place to go, finding a place to sleep, and figuring out what to eat.

"What are we doing today?"

Coconut and J ask us this all the time. Their second most frequent question is, “How long are we staying here?” Sometimes we have an answer, and sometimes not.

When planning a route into and through a country, we come up with an overall country plan. How do we get from our entry point, visit the places in the country that are must do, that we have always dreamed of seeing, or that we never heard of before but that have been recommended to us by other overlanders, and get to our exit point using an efficient route on paved roads? Our country plan for Mexico got blown to pieces, as we ended up in places we had no intention of going and stayed much longer than we planned, but that turned out for the better. We’ve stuck to the plan so far for Guatemala.

In making our overall country plan, I am low tech. We have a few guide books – Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide – and I read them. There are a lot cooler 21st century ways to do this, but I like to curl up with a good book at night and what could be better than the Rough Guide to Central America on a Budget?

When I come up with a place or an area that sounds fun for all, or that has something educational to do that I think the kids won’t complain too much about, I look at our paper map to see if we can get there in a reasonable way considering all the other things in the country that are on the list of things to do. One thing we learned in Mexico is that not all roads are flat and that Wesley, our van, is capable of climbing mountains, but that it takes time. We double the time that our guidebooks or Google Maps estimate that it will take to get anyplace.

Once I’ve mapped out an overall country plan, I discuss it with R, our resident techie, and she uses the few apps that we have and poses queries to the overlanding forums she is part of to see if things have changed in the few years since our books were written or for places to camp, since the books are written with backpackers, not overlanders, in mind.

When we are in country, we plan our day-to-day activities like we would plan our weekends at home – we see what comes up. As I mentioned, we go to an area of the country because there are cool things to do there, but we don’t really have a plan to do them. We roll with the mood that strikes us, or the weather, or the circumstances. For example, we anticipated that Flores, Guatemala, had a full week of activities - a lake for swimming, boats to cruise the lake, a zoo, hiking, a wild animal rehabilitation center, and Tikal. Also, R had studied Spanish in nearby San Andres and we wanted to visit her places of interest. We ended up underestimating the time needed and spending ten days there, and still didn’t do some of the things I thought we might do. Other places, like Rio Dulce on Lago Izabel, are hot, bustling, dusty junctions, and we get out of dodge sooner than we think we might.

Other times we don’t get to a planned location and have to come up with a new plan on the fly. Semuc Champey, the most beautiful waterfalls in Guatemala, was recommended to us by several other travelers, but it will have to exist without us because we couldn’t drive there from where we were. Instead, we drove to some other waterfalls that were maybe not as beautiful, but we learned how to use a machete to cut a coconut and jumped off a bridge with some local boys into the Rio Chiyo.

Victor lived across the street from the place we camped for New Years. He showed J how to cut a coconut with a machete, showed us the best swimming spots on the river, and basically stuck with us the two days we were there.



The house Victor lives in with his parents and two younger brothers.

J shows some of the local boys how to do it. He was soon joined by Victor and his brothers.

Earlier this week we planned to stay at a Japanese guest house in Quirigua, a small town near some off-the-beaten track Mayan ruins, so that R could rest from her recent infirmities, the kids could catch up on homework, and I could visit the ruins. However, after finding the guest house – which was no easy task – we learned there were no rooms available. So it was back in the car for another 200 kilometers to Guatemala City. After a few hours of driving, we were all hot and cranky and R was fading, so we ended up at a hotel with a pool and water slide in Santa Rosa where we stayed for two nights.

"Where are we going to sleep?"

When Coconut was three, we flew to the Bahamas to meet some friends who were cruising in their 44-foot sailboat, Belisana, for the year. We told Coconut beforehand that we would be staying on the boat with our friends, so when they came to pick us up in the dinghy from wherever it was the puddle jumper dropped us off, Coconut was a little confused. She whispered to R, “Where are we all going to sleep?”

Having Wesley solves that problem – we can all sleep comfortably inside the van. My preference is to camp because it’s cheaper, and also, like a younger sibling, Wesley has become part of the family and it’s a little sad when we roll the slider door shut and walk away for the night. One couple we met in Oaxaca told us that when they have guests to their home, they offer the guests their own bedroom and sleep in their van in the garage. We understand that sentiment. There have been a few times when we’ve rented a hotel room and R or I have slept in the van on the street. It’s nice and cozy.

Sometimes it is too hot to sleep in the van, or sometimes we have slept in the van a few days in a row and we need a shower, or the kids will request a room with WiFi. For example, Coconut asked if we could get a room for Christmas because she didn’t want to drive on that day. That was a reasonable request – how else would Santa have found us – so we got a room.  If we get a hotel room, it is usually a place suggested by our guidebook or that R has found online. If we plan to be around a while, we will look for an AirBnB place.

In most cities there are no convenient places to camp and we end up in a room because we would have to camp too far out of the city to visit the places in the city that we want to visit. Once camp is set up, it’s an involved process to break it down to drive around town, so we don’t usually do that. Guanajuato and San Cristobal de las Casas, both in Mexico, were two exceptions where campgrounds were within walking distance of the city center – though, in Guanajuato, we called the campground a “yonke” (junkyard) because there were several rusted out autos on the grounds.

The view from our campsite in Guanajuato was interesting.

"What’s for dinner?"

Wesley comes equipped with a two-burner propane stove, and we brought along our camp stove, so we can cook our meals at home. If we aren’t camping, we look for rooms that have a private kitchen or access to a communal kitchen. R has become expert at baking a pizza on the bottom of a cast iron frying pan.

Of course, part of the fun of traveling is that you get to eat all the tasty foods native to the place that you are visiting. One of our favorite things to do in Oaxaca was to visit the Friday street vendor food market in Llano park to get the pork rib tacos for 5 pesos each. Overall, we prefer the food in Mexico. It was cheaper than in Guatemala, and tastier – we eat these things in Guatemala that they call tortillas but the Chicago Black Sox may have used them in 1919 for baseball gloves.

We also loved the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables in Mexico. And the fresh squeezed juices. Consistently, the vegetables on offer in Guatemala are yellowed broccoli, wrinkled string beans, and sad-looking cauliflower. The fruits are just as pathetic - waxy apples and believe it or not, it’s hard to find a decent banana. Guatemala does have seedless watermelons, which is the only kind the kids will eat, and the pineapples are outstanding. We drove through Puerto Barrios the other day, which is a city on the Caribbean coast where Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita have shipping facilities, and stopped at a few roadside stands for some of the sweetest pineapples ever. They cut it in quarters, with the hard center intact, so it’s like you are eating pineapple on a stick.

The only other food that stands out in Guatemala is the fried chicken from Pollo Campero – but this is basically fast food and you can now get it in the states, including in Alexandria. So, we’ve done a lot of eating at “home” – eggs and rice, roasted potatoes, salads, pasta.

So, that's it. That's how we've taken the two greatest obligations a parent has to his or her children and turned them into our only responsibilities. It's a pretty low-stress lifestyle - no worrying about schedules or who needs to be where at what time - and for all the benefit that Coconut and J will get out of it, the more immediate benefit seems to have accrued to R and I. In fact, while reading "Life of Pi" yesterday, I came across this thought penned by Yann Martel, the author. He writes, "I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful.

What we eat and other musings

In a word – food. In a Spanish word – comida. Before we left the States we made a final visit to Trader Joe’s in Austin, which is our go-to grocery store when at home in Virginia, to load up on all our familiars like the Blistered Peanuts, Z-bars, good cheeses, granola and High Fiber Cereal. Although we don’t have a lot of that stuff left, we don’t miss it (except for the cheese) because we’ve found plenty of food in Mexico to satisfy our palate.

For example, instead of the peanuts, we’ve discovered fried plantain chips: just as salty and cheaper! Instead of TJs’ freshly squeezed orange juice in a box, we get our juice freshly squeezed at a juice stand.

You can get your juice in a bag - which we choose to reuse - instead of a styrofoam cup.

R, who is a notorious fruit-stand stopper, tells this story about a trip to Baja she took years ago where the group saw a sign for oranges, stopped, and found the largest bag full of the ugliest oranges one could imagine. Having stopped, however, they felt compelled to buy, and were rewarded with the sweetest trove of fruit; the sorry looking things putting their prettier, larger, American cousins to a tail between the legs type of shame. On our first day driving in Mexico we saw a sign for oranges and stopped, of course. The cold, orange juice the man was selling was so delicious that we also brought a dollar bag of about 30 ugly oranges, and in anticipation of the sweet nectar, struggled to peel one of the dang things, only to be disappointed with the sourest, stringiest, excuse of an orange. The bag was quickly cast into the corner of Wesley and we would occasionally throw disdainful looks at it. In optimistic moments, J or I would take the five minutes or so that it took to peel one of these sorry citrus and attempt to enjoy it, however, it was never a pleasant experience and we were always left feeling used. We couldn’t even feed them to someone’s pet guinea pig, which apparently only ate oranges. When we got to SMA, J squeezed the juice out of the last 20 or so with the juicer that Sean and Mittie had, added sugar and water, and we were finally rid of them, and felt somewhat validated for buying them in the first place because he made some pretty good juice.

Another early stop was at a street side vendor selling bean tacos. Coconut and J both loved them (me too – they were 10 pesos each) and now if they don’t like what we have for lunch or dinner, or if they are still hungry after eating lunch or dinner, I can make them a bean taco with the tortillas and can of refried beans that we always try to keep on hand. Sometimes I’ll add some leftover rice from a meal we’ve had or cheese if we have something that’s not this strange Mexican version of cheese.

Because we can cook in Wesley, we make frequent grocery store stops to provision our non-perishables. We also have a fairly reliable solar set up to power the refrigerator and can keep things like milk, beer, spaghetti sauce, and leftovers from previous meals. We’ve been buying returnable five-gallon jugs of purified water and filling our water bottles and keeping those in the fridge (cold water just tastes better than hot water does when the temperatures outside reach 40 degrees Celsius) and dumping the rest in Wesley’s storage tank where we can drink it out of the tap. We don’t drink the tap water at hotels, etc., but do brush our teeth with it. We’ve got an antibacterial vegetable wash that many Mexicans add to water for soaking fruits and vegetables before eating. No one has had a serious gastrointestinal problem, yet. R was feeling poorly for a few days earlier in the trip, which was ironic because in our past travels, she’s been the solid one. (Haha. Get it?) The kids haven’t complained, and have been fairly adventurous in their eating – Coconut especially so.

The markets are amazing – the variety of fruits and vegetables, the colors, the sounds and smells, the heat and dogs. And everything is for sale; meats, household items, hardware, toys, clothes, juices, prepared foods, and inevitably, there’s a three piece band set up cranking out the local favorites.

IMG_8417The Zihuatanejo Market band

Each place we’ve been, the market has a different atmosphere to it, but each is such a local experience that I think wandering through the markets is my favorite part of traveling. Plus, I love loading up on the cheap fruits and veggies.

IMG_8393 - Copy

Cheerios still come in a box but you can get your milk in a bag.

This morning at the market I got a beet and carrot juice for 30 pesos (almost two dollars) and for less than a buck, a shredded chicken with mole negro sandwich. (Mole is a chili sauce prepared a bunch of different ways depending on region and it’s pronounced “mo-lay”.) We also spent about $15 on: a pound of chopped beef (J wants meatballs), fresh fish from the pescadores selling their morning catch on the beach (R is going to make us tiritas, a local type of ceviche), lots of fruit and vegetables at market – including apples, avocados, limes, an onion, tomatoes, a pineapple, radishes, plums - and 4 fresh baked rolls. Avocados are especially cheap – we can buy three or four depending on size, for a dollar. We are a mango eating family and we are right at the end of mango season so we’ve enjoyed our share of those as well. (On the other hand, we’re also a watermelon eating family and we will likely not buy another. Unlike the US where fruit is GMO’d to our perfectly bland and seedless preference, the watermelons here are full of pesky seeds and we all hate eating them, though we have found a good use for them - watermelon seed poker chips!)

R enjoying a juice

Caught in the act - beer and chips from the store across the street from our ocean view apartment.

Our first few days in Mexico had us wanting to eat local food but finding it difficult to know what street-side eateries were rundown-looking yet open and which were rundown-looking and closed – there isn’t much difference and only occasionally does the presentation of a place seem to be given any consideration by the proprietor. If we stuck to our ingrained programming of fresh paint and landscaping before considering whether to dine at a particular establishment, we might starve. Fortunately, we also learned before we tried it, that “barbacoa” isn’t the succulent meat grilled over an open fire with a sticky sweet sauce that it sounds like. Instead it’s some kind of cow face stew (cow cheek, cow tongue, cow forehead, cow brain). Though, I may still consider sampling it if the restaurant looks nice.

Would you eat here? It might serve the best barbacoa you've ever had.

This was in Santa Maria del Rio - one of the few times I've seen care being given to the advertising of a restaurant or how it looks

If we can’t find a roadside stand or lunch counter for eats, it’s still pretty cheap to sit in a restaurant. The most we’ve paid for a meal for the four of us is about $35 – and that was more food than we could eat. We usually bring along a Tupperware or Ziploc for the extra rice and beans and tortillas that come with every meal. At the restaurant attached to our Los Azufres camp, where R and I had trout, Coconut had the steak, and J had the chicken, the cook/waitress kept bringing us food even after our plates where cleared and we had the Uno cards out. That meal cost $18 so we did it again the next night.

Sometimes we'll eat at a restaurant just because it's hot outside and we want AC. Other times it's because we're hungry.

Being here at the beach has opened up a new food option – seafood! We’ve brought fresh fish at the beach each morning and I learned how to clean and gut a fish, which was easier and smellier than I thought it would be. I saved the fish guts for J and I to use as bait for fishing from the pier. We didn’t catch any fish, but the flies sure liked it. We’ve booked a fishing/snorkeling excursion for tomorrow and the guide will cook whatever we catch. Since J doesn’t eat fish, he is already making plans to sell any fish that he catches. I’m excited by this entrepreneurship, and he’s even offered to sell them to me at a five peso discount since I’m his dad and am paying for him to go on the trip.

Fish lined up for school

The curious thing is that despite the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables - we've heard even regularly grown crops are more organic here than the organic products at home due to the utter lack of pesticide usage and the reduced-to-zero chance for run off - meals are lacking in these homegrown products. Sometimes a meal will come with a small iceberg lettuce or shredded cabbage salad on the side with onions, and cucumber and tomato slices, but that's about it as far as it goes for a vegetable option. It is not safe to be an animal here, however, as every part of you will get eaten.

The proliferance of meat as the meal, supplemented with carbohydrate-rich rice and beans, as well as the abundance of fried foods - don't forget, even a seemingly healthy chicken taco comes in a fried tortilla - may account for Mexico recently claiming the title of most obese country in the world. And it is fairly obvious, especially amongst the women. Although portions are generally small, the amount of food that comes with a meal often pushes it over the limit of what is necessary to consume to feel full. An enchilada platter, for example, will have three or four enchiladas stuffed with chicken, side salad, rice, beans, tortillas, and may come with a sweetened juice or soda. There's not a lot in that meal that would make your mother happy except maybe the low cost. Stores are full of packaged junk food and it is fattening both the pockets of the bosses of the multinational corporations and the bellies and asses of the public. Just like in the States.

There are signs a public education campaign about healthy diet and exercise may be reaching the middle class masses, at least. In the beach town of Zihuatanejo, which at the moment seems to attract mostly Mexican vacationers rather than American or European gringos, the streets are crowded with early morning joggers and I have seen others using heavy stones as weights.  In Hidalgo, nearby the La Posada campground where we stayed, there was exercise trail equipment that people actually used as more than a tableau for graffiti.

Seeing this has been both an inspiration to me, I've been guilted into going jogging a few times, and an albatross, I've gone jogging only a few times. Perhaps because we've been mostly mobile we've failed to establish a regular exercise routine which is something I really thrive on at home as much for the mental benefits as well as the obvious physical ones. We have been fairly active between rock climbing, walking around town, and getting pummeled by the Pacific surf, so we are not totally out of shape and soft yet, but I think a more regimented routine of stretching and resistance movements for the less active days would do us all good.

One day we spent a lot of time building this sand castle compound. It wasn't a lot of exercise, but it was a lot of fun.