North America

Family Road Trip Through the USA

Family Road Trip Through the USA

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.

A Spectacular Border Crossing

A Spectacular Border Crossing

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.

On the road again - kind of

We left Oaxaca/San Felipe on Saturday. Coconut and J’s last day of school was on Thursday and they were recognized with an ovation by the student body during morning calisthenics. Neither one of them speaks Spanish well enough to tell me the words said by the teachers, so in the end, R and I may have just bought ourselves freedom for the month at the low cost of the prorated tuition. It was worth it. San Felipe gave us many happy days. The house we rented was great - it had decks with views, balconies with views, comfy beds with views, hot showers, a walk-in closet that was bigger than Wesley, and all kinds of things to explore in any direction you turned once you stepped out the door to the street. And across the way was an outdoor wedding facility, so each Saturday night we got our fill of Mexican pop music, live mariachi bands, and American faves like Guns n’ Roses and Journey cranked all the way up by the D.J. until two a.m.

Hate to give up this view of the mountains from our rooftop deck, but the time has come to ramble on.

Overall, including San Felipe, we’ve been in the Oaxaca area since October 11. Although I probably spent way more time than is healthy sitting alone in a chair watching the sun move across the mountains, even I can make friends in a month and a half, and the people you meet are part of what make a place memorable. So R and I were happy that we were able to make some friends who we hope to see again in other places, and meet a bunch of people who we would be happy to see again if we make it back to Oaxaca.

Our spread for Thanksgiving included two grilled chickens. Peppo, the director at CEI, and a CEI volunteer are to my right and Susan and Andre are to R's left. The kids must have been behind the camera.

We had a couple of fun times with Octavio and Farina, our landlords by proxy while the owner of the house was in Mexico City, and they told us how to fend off wild dogs and about places to go and things to do as we head on down the highway. We also got a lot of good advice from the amazing and inspiring Andre and Susan, who drive here from Montreal every winter to camp at an agave farm, and we heard lots of entertaining stories about their own overlanding adventures – some of which we hope not to repeat (especially the one where Andre sunk his van in mud up to the floorboards while trying to cross the Atacame Desert in Bolivia by the road less traveled.) We even made friends with the mechanic who did some work on Wesley – and he told us about a carrera bocho (a race with souped up VW Bugs) held one Sunday afternoon, where dogs and people were just as likely to be on the dirt track as race cars.

Octavio at work getting the charcoal lit so we can grill dinner.

The race was exciting in more ways than one - people were milling about on the track as the cars raced past and there was only a low berm separating the cars from the spectators.

Because our San Felipe rental house had five bathrooms, we felt comfortable inviting our Virginia friends Megan and Zoe to visit. Besides doing grown-up Oaxaca things like sampling mezcal until we were dizzy, we also took them to Cuajimoloyas, one of eight remote mountain villages, called the Pueblos Mancomunados, which have joined forces to offer wilderness and other ecotourism adventures. On the long and winding road into the mountains, Megan and Zoe were able to behold the power of Wesley – R only had to get out and push once – and we know Megan will never forget – though, she may want too - watching Calibre 50 music videos at dinner: coordinated cowboy outfits, accordions, and songs about extra-marital sex.  Zoe might also remember her 900-meter zip line into the rain and fog on the coldest day in the history of Mexico.

Enjoying a Mexican lunch of tlayudas and fresh squeezed juice on our way to Cuajimoloyas with Megan and Zoe.

Conditions for zip lining were not great, but the line was open and the kids were willing.

Zoe gives a thumbs up after surviving a zip line through the fog and rain.

Although Wesley was parked in the garage most of the time, s/he was not neglected. We had it tuned up, had the hand brake fixed, and finally changed the fuel lines that leaked every time we filled up with gas so there is no more fear we will be a great ball of fire rolling down the road – at least not from that issue. We also discovered it was not J’s socks, but a loose propane gas line coupling, that was the cause of a nasty smell inside the van and we got the driver’s side mirror replaced because it was spotted brown – who knew glass could rust? One of my favorite memories will be of the glass guy coming out to take what looked to us like very rough measurements, matter-of-factly saying “Si!” and then going back to his shop and cutting glass to fit. Presto - a new mirror. Cost - $2.

Wesley parked outside of our San Felipe rental house as we load up our things to leave.

Even though we’ve left San Felipe, we didn’t leave it far behind. Our first stop on the way to Chiapas state was at Overlander’s Oasis, a small campground owned by a Canadian couple, Leanne and Calvin, which is less than a 30-minute drive from Oaxaca. This place is legendary in our eyes - before we left Alexandria we were reading blogs by other overlanding couples who stayed here and it looked like fun - so for us to actually have made it here makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something. This may also be why we are finding it hard to leave – we came in for two nights – Saturday and Sunday - but are still here on Tuesday afternoon.

We had plans to stay on Sunday night because we wanted to catch the Lucha Libra wrestling event like we saw in the Jack Black film "Nacho Libre." It was about what you would expect from a bunch of guys in tights and masks with names like Hurricane Ramirez and Mask of Gold – pretty hilarious. One wrestler actually came out dressed like a scarecrow and had a stuffed crow on his hand. Our favorite wrestler, though, was this little guy called Shockercito, which means little shocker, and we got a great video of him flipping around a much bigger guy like a tornado.

These cool advertisements are posted all over town. How could we not go?

We stuck around on Monday because Coconut came down with an ear problem and we wanted to take her to the doctor so he could pull a big ball of wax out and give her some drops to help dissolve the rest. I stayed behind to watch Calvin replace Wesley’s propane tank regulator, but R described it as one of those kind of gross things that is fascinating. Coconut says she is fine now, so that’s good.

At some point on Monday night, while we were sitting around with some of the other folks staying at OO, listening to their stories, and drinking all the beer, wine, and mescal, in the place, R decided we were going to spend another night as well. So here we are on Tuesday, December 1, four months to the day that we left Alexandria, enjoying the sunshine and the other travelers at this great little oasis that Calvin and Leanne have built. Tomorrow, for sure, we go – partly because there are other travelers coming in with a reservation and there will be no room for us, but mostly because we are all getting a bit restless to be back on the road and find out what else Mexico has to offer.

One of the reasons we ended up staying another night at Overlander's Oasis is because we didn't get to bed until 2 a.m. Blame it on these guys.

Migrant Story

With all the free time R and I have had each day after sending the kids to school, I’ve been able to read a lot of books. In addition to Scott O’Dell, Trenton Lee Stewart, and books by someone named J.K.Rowling, that were recommended to me by Coconut and J, I was also able to finish a book titled “Enrique’s Journey” which has particular relevance to us as we make our way south through Mexico and Central America. The book is an account of a Honduran boy’s life and the reasons that compel him to undertake a dangerous journey north through Mexico on top of freight trains and running from gangsters and authorities to find his mother in North Carolina. Enrique’s mother had left him and his sister in the care of family members when Enrique was five and departed for “El Norte” with the hope of making money to feed and support them. After ten years of mostly downs in his life, and overwhelming feelings of loss, abandonment, anger, and despair, and with his own economic prospects dim, Enrique sets off on his own journey north to find his mother. The book is compelling to us for a number of reasons.

First, the story is unfathomable. R and I can’t imagine, and I daresay you can’t either, the despair a mother must feel to leave her children behind to travel thousands of miles with the hope that she can land a job that will allow her to save enough money to, first of all, send money home to feed them, and second of all, either bring the children illegally to the U.S., or return home in a few years with enough money to buy land, build a house, and start a business. It is serendipity that I was born a U.S. citizen and my biggest problem is often whether to order one pizza or two, and what toppings.

In describing Enrique’s journey, the book goes into detail about the many dangers faced by him, and migrants generally, as they travel through Mexico. There is no means for them to immigrate legally so they are reduced to jumping on and off moving trains, losing limbs or their lives when they miss a step or handhold, getting robbed and beaten by gangsters in Chiapas, Mexico, getting robbed and killed by Mexican authorities throughout the country, starving, freezing, and being caught and sent back south (usually to Guatemala) to try again. Enrique was caught by Mexican immigration and sent back to the Mexican-Guatemalan border town seven times.

As we all have no doubt heard from Donald Trump, it’s not a unique thing for people living in Central America, particularly Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, to immigrate to the U.S. to look for work. What is often missing from the sound bites, however, is any information on the reasons why people are compelled to leave family and friends behind to travel to a foreign country where they are often discriminated against, taken advantage of, and looked at suspiciously. I mean, let’s get serious, these people are not coming here so they can clean fast food joints’ toilets for minimum wage and then go out and get drunk and rape people and commit other crimes. I’m not an expert on this issue so this blog is not going to get into the many social and economic reasons why people might put their lives and families at risk to get to the U.S.; I encourage you to read the book instead because Sonia Nazario, the author of “Enrique’s Journey”, is a journalist and she does offer explanations. And let’s just say that the U.S. is not innocent - its historical Latin American policies are at least somewhat responsible for the lack of current economic opportunities within the countries. But let’s not go there, or dwell on the fact that our Congress still hasn’t come up with a sensible immigration reform proposal; instead focusing on partisan issues like trying to impeach the Commissioner of the IRS and restrict the sale of oranges at government cafeterias. In somewhat related current events - R and I recently read a NY Times article about how the U.S. has outsourced its border patrol.

A second reason why the book was so compelling to us was that when we leave Oaxaca in a few weeks, we will be heading directly into the belly of the beast - Chiapas state in Mexico - where Central American migrants face the most risk, including at the hands of Mexican immigration officials, who are just as likely to shake a migrant down as a bandit or gangster. Actually, we are more heading into the calf and ankles of the beast because we aren’t going to the places where migrants cross the border and hide in cemeteries and marshes to avoid detection from bandits who rob and beat them and from Mexican authorities who rob and beat and deport them, and we certainly won’t be riding on top of any freight trains, but to see this stuff first hand would be pretty fascinating. This is a pretty good overall summary of the dangers migrants face. There are also heart-warming stories - check this out.

Finally, a few weeks ago when we were driving back from Hierve el Agua, the frozen waterfall, we reached the top of a mountain and there was a guy walking alongside the highway, so we stopped to ask if he needed a ride. I may have stopped because I was still feeling the good will from getting a ride myself that morning after I had walked up from the campground to a store in town to buy some milk for our cereal and someone heading back down the hill stopped and told me to climb in. It turned out the guy at the top of the mountain was heading to Oaxaca city, which was where we were going - an hour’s drive away, so it was good for him that we did stop because even Wesley could get him there a lot faster than it would have taken him to walk there.

This guy had left a wife and two sons in Guatemala a few weeks before and was heading to the U.S. to make enough money to buy land. Two years, he thought. He had just been robbed of his last 400 pesos by a taxi driver who promised to take him to Oaxaca, only to kick him out after driving for a short while, and he hadn’t eaten since the day before. We gave him a few oranges and a can of beans - good hobo grub - and dropped him at the migrant shelter in Oaxaca where he would be able to stay and eat for a few days. Then he would be back on the road, just like we will be in a few weeks. Though, we are each writing very different stories.

Life as we know it

We live on the side of a mountain that is at the foot of a 1,200 meter (4,000 foot) mountain called the Cerro San Felipe. Everything in Mexico seems to be built on the side of a mountain. Even parts of the coast are at 500 meters above sea level. Every morning when I wake up I can hear the mountain call to me. “Paul,” it says. “Get up.” After I pee, I go stand on our second floor balcony and look at the mountain and see it is covered in trees and early morning sunshine, and also, sometimes, the top of it is hidden in the clouds. “Here I am,” it says. After taking a few deep breaths of cool air into my lungs while looking at the mountain, I go downstairs and I stand on our first floor balcony and the bushes and trees block my view of the mountain so I look at the river that runs next to our house instead. This place is awesome.

Coconut and J eventually make their way downstairs, sometimes with a smile and sometimes not, and I help them figure out what they want for breakfast and I make their lunch, and then R comes down, always with a smile, and we walk the mile to school. I’m not sure if we can see the mountain during our walk; surely at times we can see parts of it, but mostly we are engaged in talking and avoiding the fresh piles of dog crap, and also the dried up piles. On Tuesday mornings the garbage truck announces its presence with a distinctive horn and everyone comes out of their house or garage with their bags of trash and throws them into the back of the truck - a kind of grown-up game of playing garbage man.

On the walk back to our house, R and I will sometimes stop at the one grocery store in town and buy eggs or something boxed or a can of refried beans, and I’ll replenish my two 1.2 liter deposit bottles of beer, and on Tuesday and Friday we will walk through the market by the church and buy fresh fruits and vegetables and maybe stop and sit down and get a fresh squeezed juice and whatever the women are selling for comida - like a mushroom empanada or a chorizo burrito. We will usually spend about 200 pesos (around $12) and have just about all we can carry home in our bags and our bellies. By this time it might be 8:30 or 9 a.m. and . . . we’ve already had a great day and don’t have to get the kids until 2:30 p.m.!

O.K., so now it gets serious, right? What the hell are we going to do all day? I’ve never been one to worry about what I would do all day in retirement, and that is even less of a problem right now while all my limbs, and I mean ALL my limbs, are in first rate working order. So there’s that. And if we are feeling lazy then we can sit around and read a book. You would be surprised how much you can read in a morning with no interruptions like conference calls. Or we plan where we might go next on this journey. Or I sit and look at the mountain.

Then there’s the city. It is only a twenty minute and 7 peso bus ride away and has history museums, restaurants, markets, art stuff, and people - who are always a trip to watch even if they are just shuffling by. There are a lot of differences between Mexicans and Americans, but really there aren’t that many. People walk fast and they walk slow. They hold hands. They wear suits and dresses and they exercise. Okay, sometimes Mexicans eat corn on a stick while walking down the street and you can also easily buy chicken feet because, I guess, people like chicken feet in Mexico, but Mexicans also eat Doritos and drink milk that tastes like milk. This is not routine for us and we are all learning perspective and it is pretty damn exciting.

Last Wednesday, R and I stopped by a mechanic recommended to us by another mechanic, but he wasn’t able to do any work on Wesley until the next day. Our new friend Octavio was with us - Octavio is friends with Mark, the owner of the house we rented, and is our local contact who can get things done because Mark lives in Mexico City. Octavio came with us to the mechanic as a translator in case R couldn’t understand mechanic lingo (but, of course, she could) - so after the mechanic said to come back tomorrow, we three walked to a place to have lunch and learned about Octavio (he’s chido!) then we parted ways and R and I made our way to the cemetery, because, why not? Then we drove Wesley back home and walked to pick up the kids and stopped at the one grocery store to buy Kinder Eggs. We should own stock in that store.

When we went back to see the mechanic on Thursday, we learned that he races VW Bugs, and that there is a race coming up this month and that we can go with him, and then the juice lady came by on her bicycle with a table welded to the front of it and the table was full of juice and we all brought a juice. I am realizing this break from traveling day to day may be more for R and me than for Coconut and J. It’s fun to meet cool people like apartment managers and mechanics and make plans to do things with them.

If you have come to think of life as going to work and coming home, this is like a vacation from life.

Later on, when I was standing on our roof watching Octavio build an awning with bamboo to provide some shade up there, we looked at the light on the mountain and heard the mountain calling. “Octavio,” it said. “Paul,” it said. “Here I am.” It’s a beautiful looking thing and we made plans to climb it next Wednesday.

Family fun on the Day of the Dead

Family fun on the Day of the Dead

We decided to pull up the parking brake in Oaxaca for the month not only because it’s fun to say that you are in Wa-ha-ka (the phonetic pronunciation of Oaxaca) but also for the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. The Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition occurring on November 1 or November 2 - we haven’t been able to figure out which of the two days is the actual Day of the Dead - where the living relatives of a dead person celebrate the dead person’s life by pulling weeds that have grown up around the grave of the dead person since the last time the living people - who are busy all year doing things that living people do like riding motorcycles - visited a year ago, decorating the grave site of the dead person with flowers and art, drinking mezcal, and passing out in the cemetery. The Day of the Dead ritual has its religious origins in Mexican colonial times when the Catholic Church tried to meld indigenous beliefs with its own recognition of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, but has been commercialized to the point that you can buy cotton candy and light-up neon circus toys while urinating in the corner of the cemetery. I’m just saying.

How Frank Zappa educated my children

My Mom was a teacher. Her daddy before her was a caddy master at a golf course and her mom sold cosmetics. My Dad worked on Wall Street and his parents weren’t teachers either. R’s father is of Mormon heritage and her maternal grandfather had three wives simultaneously. There’s a lot of mystery, intrigue, aunts, uncles, and cousins on her side of the family. None of them are teachers. We come from a long line of non-teachers and Coconut and J were quick to call our bluff. “You’re not my teacher”, they said when we tried to teach them the things we told the Alexandria City Public School system that we would teach them in this year of homeschooling so that they could be placed into an age appropriate grade whenever we get back to that version of reality. Though, looking on the bright side of failure, J may be able to drive himself to middle school, which would save R and me some time in the mornings.

We’re both pretty smart people though, R and I. We’ve been around the block a few times - R a few more times than me given her advanced age. Since both our kids were reading above grade level and were selected for advanced placement math when we took them out of school for this trip, I proposed we could surrender on the education front and when we re-enrolled Coconut and J in public school the other kids in their age group would hopefully have caught up. While that would be a nice, easy solution to eliminate the daily stress R and I experience trying to get Coconut and J to do a math lesson or write in their journal instead of watch 6 consecutive episodes of The Amazing Spiderman cartoon before 9 a.m., R convinced me that it was an abdication of parental responsibilities. That’s why we’ve agreed to rely on others to educate our children.

Coconut and J learned from the Frank Zappa song “Why Does it Hurt when I Pee?” about sexually transmitted diseases and we’ve now enrolled them in a project-based learning school in San Felipe del Agua, just north of Oaxaca City, where over the next month, they will have social interaction with children their own age, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and decide whether or not they like the color yellow.

Coconut and J walking to their first day of Mexican school in uniform - yellow shirts and long pants. There was not too much protest so we think they were both somewhat excited about it.

All it took to enroll them for the month was some money and they started that day - no transcripts, placement tests, health records, or questions about allergies. Mexico is so simple! And to put a grand finale on their first week of school, they got to walk around town in a parade led by a professional brass band in celebration of the Day of the Dead. R and I could not have topped that in our version of school.

Everything that we read before leaving on our trip (when I say “we read”, I mean that R read the articles and forwarded them to me where they piled up in my inbox) about road-schooling - a version of homeschooling performed in the back seat of some type of wheeled vehicle - condemns the rote structure of the traditional classroom learning experience where children are told how, where, and when to learn certain subjects, and are held back by their peers who learn at a much slower pace (i.e., they’re borderline dumb), and trumpets the virtue of taking the child out of the classroom and letting his or her natural inquisitiveness with regards to a particular thing dictate the learning process - even if that interest is imagining the offspring of two extinct species of fish.

We read about road-schooled children - world-schooling is another kitschy name that people use to try to get you to read their blog where they sell space to companies trying to capitalize on the growing world-school market - who willingly do science or creative projects, “collect” photos of historical buildings or fancy churches they’ve seen, and go on hikes or bike rides through nature that doesn’t exist in a Minecraft world. My kids don’t do anything willingly, but I shuddered to think what level of greatness I could have reached if only I had been released from the drudgery of classroom learning and left on my own to pursue my real passion - idealizing Old West gunfighters. Alas, it was college and law school for me, and a stack of Weird Western Tales comic books.

Sometimes, road-school works out really well, like when Coconut helps out her brother with a tough math problem.

Now, us road-schoolers, (I use that term loosely as it regards myself) recognize the value of knowing addition, subtraction, and using the proper verb tense when speaking, and we have the same hopes for our children that our parents had for us - love, health, happiness, and beer money. The difference is we are more in tune with the research, numbers, and hypotheses that tell us the right way to achieve those things.

To be brutally honest - which I am sometimes too much so, to the point of being offensive - I don’t think the decision we road-schoolers make to pull our children out of the traditional American education system for a lesson in comparative analysis of traffic signs is completely borne of wanting what is best for our children. Some of it must be motivated by self-interest - we’ve been sitting behind a desk for the last pick a number of years while the days of our lives tick by without us being fully engaged. It’s depressing to think that meeting a deadline is all life has to offer for those of us who have always daydreamed about some kind of nomadic existence. As a kid, I used to watch the medians between highways on car trips thinking about whether it would be a good campsite, by criminies! I’ve spent too much of my adult life where the highlight of my year was receiving the revised edition of the Internal Revenue Code. Enough!

Nevertheless, despite this trip being perhaps R’s and my idea of a good time more so than Coconut and J’s, R and I have spent a good deal of time discussing whether what we are doing is in the best interests of the kids. Yeah, we had those conversations before we left on the trip too, but we got caught up in the articles we read about how an iPad is a tool for learning and not just for playing Asphalt 8 (not in this family!) and how much fun it is to learn math by converting foreign currency into dollars and kilometers into miles (combined, these “lessons” took about two minutes before the kids got it.)

We didn’t put the pieces together and figure out if the style of self-motivated learning was a fit for our children. Maybe we didn’t know our children that well (we thought they had interests!), or maybe it’s too soon to say whether the model is a success or failure for us, but so far, the picture that we are drawing of road-schooling looks like something a preschooler would do - there’s a lot of coloring outside the lines. It could be us too. Maybe we are too caught up in "book-learning" and our expectations of what road-school is supposed to be were something different than how things have turned out so far.  Because, looking back over our three months, we've done some pretty cool things that we may not have had time, opportunity, or money to do back home, and from which they might have learned something.

Here, Coconut learns about physics and locomotion by driving a quad on the streets of San Miguel de Allende. Is this happening in the streets of Alexandria? Not without a traffic ticket!

J loved spearfishing along Manzanillo Beach in hurricane like conditions - a hurricane warning had been issued for further up the coast and the swells at this Puerto beach were larger than usual.

So, road-school, we haven't given up on it. But after three plus months on the road, we wanted to stop and reintroduce the kids to something more familiar to them - classroom learning with their peers. R and I also needed to catch up on our afternoon naps.

Before we left on this trip, someone asked me what I hoped to gain from it. I answered, perspective. R and I want the kids to understand that what they see and hear and know in Alexandria, or in the U.S., is not the only thing that they can see and hear and know, and that different things are important to people in different ways and for different reasons. Basically, we want them to try and live by accepting things for what they are, and to be who they are. As Frank Zappa sings, “Who cares if you’re so poor you can’t afford to buy a pair of mod a go-go stretch-elastic pants. There will come a time when you can even take your clothes off when you dance.” In other words, differences don’t mean one way is right and one way is wrong, unless you are planning to vote for Donald Trump for president. That’s just wrong.

So, perspective on the world is one lesson we want them to learn, and perhaps just exposure will enable them to think this way. Being in a school with kids in Oaxaca, Mexico, will give them perspective. The other lessons we want them to learn are those that will get them a high school diploma.

Road-schoolers do not test because it is a false measure of intelligence and categorizes kids as either smart or dumb, which could damage their confidence and discourage them from thinking of learning as a joy, so it is hard to gauge what Coconut or J have absorbed substantively from our three months on the road. We didn’t think Coconut was paying any attention at all when we went to the Martin Luther King, Jr. museum or the other sites we visited during our Civil Rights tour through Atlanta, Alabama, Mississippi, and Memphis, but then one day weeks later she compared teacher strikes going on in Mexico for equal pay and working conditions to the U.S. civil rights movement. Cool!

There's always something going on in the Zocalo in Oaxaca - like teacher protests and women dancing with baskets balanced on their heads!

There was a lot of U.S. and Mexican history printed onto the walls at the Alamo which Coconut and J were too bored and hot to read, but J took an interest in James Bowie and his knife, and when we googled those things later, we learned that Bowie wasn’t quite the hero we thought he was going to be, though he did get stabbed and shot about twenty times at the Sandbar Fight without dying so whatever else he was, we know he was pretty damn tough. We also learned that a Bowie knife is sharp on both sides of the blade, among other features. Padrissimo!

In Dolores de Hidalgo, we learned that Mexico has a history and good ice cream.

We saw in Dolores de Hidalgo that Mexico has its own story of revolution for liberty from foreign oppressors, and Coconut noticed that the heroes and villains in that history have streets in every major city and minor village named after them, and we learned at the archaeological sites of Monte Alban and Yagul that there was a rich cultural and spiritual (and violent!) pre-hispanic society in Mexico to rival any in the world at the time. We also learned a heck of a lot about sea turtles. Chido!

What we saw and learned about sea turtles at Playa Escobilla was unforgettable.

We may not be marine biologists, but we've spent a lot of time in the water.

Maybe in twenty or thirty years Coconut and J will remember some details about these things, or maybe they’ll just have an inkling of the concept, or have forgotten everything. Who knows? Sometimes they don’t appear to be enjoying what we are doing - we know this because we can read their cues, usually preceded by something along the lines of “when are we leaving?” - and R and I think we are failing them. But then everyone that we’ve talked to whose parents did this to them in their youth, before road-schooling was a term of art, look back on the time fondly now that they are adults, so we are hoping that whatever anguish Coconut and J are feeling now will be recalled positively. As evidence this is possible, J said this week that he remembered his preschool days as a fun time, which was good because what R and I were afraid he would remember was that he cried every day at drop off for his entire three-year preschool career. Anyway, I told them the two most important things for them to do this month are 1) stay alive, and 2) learn to speak Spanish. They both laughed, so at least I know they were listening.

Zihuatanejo - Our Beach Vacation

We've been in Zihuatanejo for a week. When we pulled up last Friday, the hotel manager, a retired rodeo cowboy named Nacho, quoted us a daily cost which was much more than we wanted to pay for a beach-view, two-bedroom apartment - something like 1,300 pesos (about $75) a night. After we protested, Nacho said, we have a custom in Mexico - negotiation. He took a seat on the edge of the coffee table. You tell me what you want to pay for the night, he said, and then I will counter with my price. If we can't agree, then we roll the dice.

 

After a little back and forth negotiation, we remained 100 pesos apart. Nacho took a big wooden die off the bookshelf and handed it to J. You are four persons, he said, if you roll that number, you pay your price. If not, you pay mine. When R explained what was going on to J, you could see the weight of the world settle on the poor boy's shoulders. He knows how we love a bargain, and he probably hates spending money more than any of us, so from his point of view, if anything but four came up he would have really let us down.

 

"You better roll a four," I told him to keep the pressure on.

 

J took a deep breath, tossed the die confidently in the air and caught it, and then spun it across the white, tile floor. We all watched it bounce, teeter on edge like a sailboat taking a sharp turn in a strong wind, and settle on . . . four! We all jumped, even Nacho, like we'd just won all the guacamole we could eat in a lifetime rather than saving $6 a night on our rent. But that's how things got started here and it's been just about that good since.

Have you seen the view from our apartment?

After knocking back a few shots of the tequila that I offered him, Nacho mentioned that if we stayed longer than the four nights we agreed too, he would charge us even less for each additional night. So here we are a week later - we can't pass up a bargain. Nacho was happy too, because, as he put it, he had brought his freedom. Even though he lost his commission for renting under the owner's asking price, the longer we stayed, the longer he could spend the days as he pleased and not have to stand in the street trying to get someone to rent the apartment.

Zihua, as it's called, is our first extended interaction with the working class. Who knows if Nacho really lost his commission. Maybe, but it didn't seem to concern him that much as he later offered us even more of a discount on the rent. Maybe he's got a nest egg to fall back on. I'm not sure others that we've interacted with do. Life seems very much to be a hand to mouth existence for the many who rely on others to buy their wares or food or services.

 

We negotiated with Jose, who we met on the street while he was buying a cold coconut drink, to captain a boat to take us fishing and snorkeling for 1,000 pesos ($60). Think about that. We met the guy while we were walking past a coconut stand, which was nowhere near the pier, and he pointed at a boat off in the distance in the marina and talked us into letting him captain it for us. Then we gave him 300 pesos as a deposit and got a little piece of paper in return that said we gave him 300 pesos. Then we walked with him to the place where we needed to rent snorkeling equipment for the four of us, and handed all the gear to him to store in the boat overnight. Then we treated ourselves to ice cream like we'd finally settled something that had been a problem for us for a long time. Would that ever happen in the States? Not a chance. We would probably have walked away from the guy thinking he spiked his coconut milk with rum. Instead, here, we had only a little doubt that he was the guy he said he was and would take us out into the bay to troll for fish and would not disappear with our deposit and snorkeling gear. It's just a different mindset on how business is run - everything is informal. For example, the waiters come into the street or onto the beach where you are building a sand castle to try to get you to come into their restaurant.

 

But back to the point - after Jose actually showed up the next day with the boat keys and snorkeling equipment, how much of our $60 did he take home?  Not all of it for sure, but I think he made out okay. He kept most of the fish we caught, so he could either sell them, or more likely, eat them. We tipped him after we learned he had to borrow the boat. We invited him to eat lunch with us - which was the mackerel that J caught and that we brought to a restaurant Jose recommended for preparation, and that restaurant also gave him two Micheladas, a beer and tomato juice concoction I won't go near, as props for bringing our business their way. So, in the end, he walked away with some money, some fish, and a buzz. I know I'd be happy with those spoils.

Me with a bonito that I reeled in, and Jose in the background. We turned the fish into ceviche at the restaurant that Jose took us too.

During high season, Jose is an employee on the same boat, which does deep sea fishing trips and the type of trip we went on, depending on what gets booked each day. R asked if the money he makes during high season is enough to sustain him through the year and he said not really. He needs to hustle folks like us who are just out for a drink of cold coconut milk. Life is hard.

Us hanging on the boat being easy

I gave a ten peso tip to the guy at the pier who helped us out of the boat. If he does that 100 times a day and everyone gives him 10 pesos, it's about $60. That's almost equivalent to someone in the U.S. working 10 hours a day at minimum wage. Think about that - 10 hours of work for $72.25. Here, if you earn $60 a day you may be at the higher end of the lower class pay scale. Come to think of it, I wonder how you even get that job as pier host. Is it based on an application or is it more like a giant king of the raft battle every morning amongst all the wanna-bees with the last man standing host for the day? The juice guy we met in Huetamo paid his employees about 150 pesos a day - that's almost $10. Seventy dollars a week. It may be enough to live on, but it's certainly not enough to get ahead on - to save and plan for the future as is so drilled into us in America as the goal to strive for.

 

One of the American couples we met who lives here is at odds with their parents who feel they are not doing enough for their future. The couple is making enough to live comfortably now, and are having a good time doing what they want to do, but apparently is not making enough to bank for the future. It's a lot of pressure put on us to make enough money for food, shelter, and Netflix now, and to save enough so that we do not have to pick half-eaten bagels out of the trash and sleep on subway grates later. Add children and a college education into the mix, and the daily outlook for fun begins to look even more bleak.

 

Do we feel privileged? A little bit. We could pay $24 for dinner like we did last night every night for a year and it would set us back less than $12,000. We saved more than that. We could pay the $42 a night we are paying for this place all year and it would come out around $18,500, slightly more than our Alexandria mortgage. We saved more than that, too. But it came with sacrifices. R is self-employed and I work for the government - money wasn't just falling around us from the sky. We planned for this; I drank Pabst Blue Ribbon for a while until I learned the brand was purchased by InBev, and then I drank Modelo until I learned it was purchased by InBev, and then I said the heck with it and started drinking more expensive and better tasting local micro-brews and tried to save money in other ways - I haven't purchased a new CD since Neil Young released Chrome Dreams in 2007. And I know we can eat and live more cheaply here than we have been - which is why, eventually, we are going to leave here. Probably Saturday.

 

But anyway, let's bring this thing back up from the depths of the deep subjects of which we have just scratched the surface. This is our beach vacation, after all. Things aren't supposed to get so heavy. We've been in the ocean everyday - several times. We've built amazing sandcastles with thick sand walls and sturdy sand towers and decorated them with shells, and rocks, and bottle caps, and watched from our balcony as people have deliberately stomped them back into the beach. Why do people feel compelled to tread on when they can walk around? We've had so much beach time, in fact, that our skin is peeling from our faces and bald heads from sun overexposure. Between my new haircut, which I love, and flaking skin, some would say my head was a mess right now.

J poses with one of our majestic sand castles

We went fishing. Jose took us, and J reeled in a big mackerel. He was as excited about that as he was nervous about rolling for our rent. As we walked from the pier to the restaurant with our big mackerel in hand, people stopped and looked - no one had seen a mackerel that big, or at least not recently - and tried to be friends with us, the mackerel catching family, and we smiled and shook our mackerel at them and waved like the Queen of England.

J and the Mackerel that garnered much awe

Our mackerel was so big that I also needed to be photographed with it even though I didn't catch it.

We go to market and buy fruit - avocados and apples and plums and pineapple and peaches - and vegetables - radishes (big and red!) and broccoli and onions and tomatoes - and juice and fish.

At its heart, Zihua is a fishing village, and every morning the fishermen who have been out all night run their boats into shore (Literally. They line up to head full speed into the beach and pull up the propeller at the last moment before crunching the hull into the sand) to sell their catch which is a bunch of fish that I don't know how to say in English, but also includes swordfish, marlin,and Ronco, the local whitefish. There are also millions of anchovies splashing about in the bay, shouting here I am, come and catch me, and the fishermen come with their nets at all times of day to catch them, and the birds dive headfirst into the sea from the sky to eat them, and other fish stalk them from below the surface and eat them. We've decided life is hard, and probably short, for anchovies.

Fishermen sell their catch at market each morning.

 

We've played cards using watermelon seeds - 400 of them from a single half-watermelon - as poker chips (it's a math lesson - probabilities). We've finally sorted out our iPod to contain music that the kids should know - like the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Frank Zappa.

We've had a mechanic check out Wesley after the hard slog through the mountains (clean bill of health), we've done laundry, and we've downloaded some of the things we've needed for the kids to be educated to the standards of the Alexandria Public School System, where they will return to school next year if we decide to go back.

And I've had time to reflect on some of the things we've seen and heard that I was too busy to think about when we were driving every day or every other day. And that's why you get posts like this that go on and on.

 

 

Up and Down the Sierra Madre and the Butterfly Massacre

Up and Down the Sierra Madre and the Butterfly Massacre

We left Los Azufres early Thursday in anticipation of a long drive to the Pacific Ocean that we would be able to complete in one day. Silly us. We finally arrived in Zihuatanejo (Zihua, to the locals), in Guerrero state, on Friday afternoon at 6 p.m. after driving back to back 7-hour days - in which we broke two of our road rules, not to drive longer than four hours in any one day and not to drive consecutive four-hour days. The entire distance was less than 300 miles, but our map is not topographical and no one told us our chosen route - route 51 to route 134 - required us to climb and descend two spurs of the Sierra Madre mountain range - the Sierra Madre Occidental (West) and the Sierra Madre Sur (South). Let me tell you, these are big mountains and we climbed most of the way in second gear, with an occasional downshift to first gear, and we descended most of the way in third gear, with an occasional downshift to second gear, for the numerous "curva peligrosa" - dangerous curves.

It happened at Los Azufres

We've each challenged ourselves to learn one physical and intellectual skill during this year abroad. For example, R wants to learn the night sky as her mental challenge and J wants to learn how to surf. Coconut wants to read 100 books.

My physical challenge is to learn to juggle a soccer ball on my feet at least ten times without it hitting the ground which may not seem like much of an accomplishment but soccer didn't even exist as a sport when I was in high school in NJ in the 1980's so it's basically the equivalent of a kid today learning how to ride a broomstick so she can try out for the local Quidditch team.

Wednesday morning as I was practicing in the field by our camp, I kicked the ball over the hedgerow. When I peered over the bushes to see how easy it was going to be to retrieve the ball, I saw the ball rolling down the embankment to a very narrow but fast moving creek. I quickly burst through the hedges, good thing I had put on long pants, and ran downstream to see if I could intercept the ball before it floated to Mexico City. As luck would have it, the ball had gotten stuck in the eddy of a small waterfall.

Great! I wouldn't have to shell out 30 pesos for a new ball, but I was going to have to wade into the creek to get our ball. This is where putting on long pants in the morning backfired because the pool was deep and there was no way I could hitch my pant legs up high enough to avoid getting them wet.

After a quick look around the camp ground and pool area - it's good that we camp at places like this during the week when the rest of Mexico is at work - I took off my shoes and pants - leaving me barefoot and spindly. After contemplating the bank again (must everything in Mexico be so darn steep!), I was pretty sure I could get into the creek, even if it meant falling in with thorns in my soles, but I was less sure I could get out again.

After a few calls for help to my family which was huddled around their screens at camp, they finally came to my aid long after I would have drowned or been eaten by a bear if I had been in any real need of help, and were reduced to tears by this vision of the morning.

After they had gained their composure again, R and J teamed up to dislodge the ball from its resting place while I waded in at a shallower spot which would not have required me to remove my pants if I had thought of it in the first place and waited for the ball to take its short whitewater journey to my waiting hands. 

San Miguel de Allende . . . and beyond!

We arrived in San Miguel de Allende on Friday, September 5 and left on Tuesday, Septmber 8. It's hard to keep track of the day and date when you're untethered like we are, but it's helpful to know in case a store or restaurant might be closed or whether a certain market is happening.

It's also necessary for us to know the date because we aren't completely untethered - we have plans to meet R's parents in Belize on October 2 so we are making a mad dash across 1,400 miles of vast and culturally diverse Mexico to arrive on time.

One place we do want to visit before we say adios to Mexico is Chichen Itza, which, it turns out, is a Mayan city and not a way to prepare chicken, for the autumnal equinox on September 22 when the sun will strike the temple El Castillo - so named by the Spaniards - in such a way that a serpent carved into the steps will appear to slither to the ground - something the Mayans actually planned and not a bit of architectural and astronomical dumb luck as has played such an instrumental role in shaping my own life. But more of that at another time.

Today, Wednesday, September 9, we spent the day at Erindira in Los Azufres, which is a park about 60 kilometers east of Morelia in Michoacan state. It's fairly close to the middle of the country, but a heck of a lot prettier than Oklahoma - no offense to any Oklahomans who may be reading this. Erindira is a hot springs and campground in a pine forest near a trout farm and at some high elevation, and it was all Wesley could do in second gear to climb the mountain to get here. Heck, it was all we could do to find our way here without a GPS or a map that has all the route numbers and town names marked on it, and R and I were about as far apart as you can get while sitting right next to each other and arguing whether to take 51 through Celaya, or 45 towards Mexico City, or 120 to Acambaro, or 43 towards Salvatierra, all of which might lead to some road that might lead to here. Of course, this happened just after R mentioned how well marked the roads were and I agreed.

Here's what R and I look like when we are not talking. Things turned out okay after I spent the night in the doghouse.

Here's what R and I look like when we are not talking. Things turned out okay after I spent the night in the doghouse.

Anyway, we made it before dark and set up camp and I slept in the tent by myself - kind of like being put in the doghouse. We had a lazy day today in anticipation of a long push towards the Pacific Coast tomorrow. We went for a soak in the various hot tubs in the morning and then came back to camp and did some schoolwork - I now am solid with polygons and can approximate how many tourists visit the White House in one year - and then strapped on our shoes to take our first hike in Mexico to visit the trout farm which is up 138 steps leading into the forest, through a barbed wire fence, and down a dirt road with a creek running across it which is narrow enough to jump over. This is how Coconut and J gain perspective on the world.

Trout farm
Trout farm
Broken bridge
Broken bridge
hike to trout farm
hike to trout farm

J has made two fishing poles on this trip after he watched a few YouTube videos about how to make a pole and he's been patiently waiting to use them. He was hopeful that we could fish at the trout farm but even after we carried them all the way there, it was no dice. We hung around at the farm for awhile anyway and watched the fish swim in circles while one of the holding tanks was cleaned. Signs advertised that the fishery (how can it be a fishery if you can't fish? Doesn't one nurse at a nursery? Eat at an eatery? Bake at a bakery?) was recognized as a place that raised trout in a way that was environmentally helpful to both the fish and to humans and R and I would agree after we had a couple of them for dinner.

J and I tried to get in a few casts at the trout farm
J and I tried to get in a few casts at the trout farm

We spent our time in San Miguel de Allende at Sean and Mittie's house regrouping, soaking up the hot showers, and throwing a bone over and over again to their dog Switters. R and Sean volunteered together in Guatemala in the last century at a non-profit development agency and reconnected recently through the magic of Facebook. Sean has been living in SMA for almost a decade, making money as a professional photographer, and partnering with Mittie as an adventure travel team. I recommend you check out what they are up to at www.seanandmittie.com because it's pretty inspiring - they planted more than a few seeds in the fertile valleys of R's and my brains. We really appreciate their hospitality in letting us take over their house for a long weekend, and thank them for introducing us to the "Cubano" sandwich at the shop with the green door. If you eat one of those every day, and order the green juice which includes parsley, you will grow old and happy.

Me, J, R, Mittie and Sean in San Miguel de Allende. Coconut took the photo
Me, J, R, Mittie and Sean in San Miguel de Allende. Coconut took the photo
Coconut's rooftop campsite in Sean and Mittie's garden
Coconut's rooftop campsite in Sean and Mittie's garden
Switters the dog, camped out at the feet of his new best friend J, who threw Switters his toy bone over a hundred times that day
Switters the dog, camped out at the feet of his new best friend J, who threw Switters his toy bone over a hundred times that day
Coconut gives Switters some bone action
Coconut gives Switters some bone action
Coconut and J sharing some Wifi time before lights out in the upstairs room at Sean and Mittie's
Coconut and J sharing some Wifi time before lights out in the upstairs room at Sean and Mittie's

Another super cool thing that happened was that Sean took a bunch of photos of Wesley in different "poses" that looked really great and we can't wait until he's done editing so that I can finally write up a blog post about how Wesley is outfitted and how we manage in it day-to-day.

Sean gets Wesley in focus for its photo shoot
Sean gets Wesley in focus for its photo shoot
Vanamos family with Switters - the only dog I ever liked. No offense to my cousin Anthony's dog, Ricky Bobby (aka Reggie)
Vanamos family with Switters - the only dog I ever liked. No offense to my cousin Anthony's dog, Ricky Bobby (aka Reggie)

I've heard about SMA for a number of years as an American retiree community and we saw our share of viejo gringos at the farmer's markets, upscale clothing boutiques, and just around. Sean said that if you were looking for a non-immersive Mexican experience, you could find it in SMA.  

Here I am carrying our laundry and water up the alley and to the house. I had two bottles of family size Corona's in my back pockets.
Here I am carrying our laundry and water up the alley and to the house. I had two bottles of family size Corona's in my back pockets.

Of course, that's not what we are looking for and the cobblestone streets, local markets, and tiled walls and houses give the city a real colonial look and feel. The other "Mexican" thing about it is that you can rent all-terrain 4-wheel vehicles and drive them around the city streets in traffic - which we did - on a tour that also took us out into the corn fields surrounding the city and up into the hills for a view over the lake and city.

J cracks a smile before getting back to the business of navigating noon time traffic in San Miguel de Allende
J cracks a smile before getting back to the business of navigating noon time traffic in San Miguel de Allende
R gives the thumbs up that J has things under control on the streets of San Miguel de Allende
R gives the thumbs up that J has things under control on the streets of San Miguel de Allende
Coconut tries to catch up to J on our drive in the country around San Miguel de Allende
Coconut tries to catch up to J on our drive in the country around San Miguel de Allende
Vanamos rules San Miguel de Allende
Vanamos rules San Miguel de Allende

A few weeks ago, or maybe just a few days ago, I've lost track, Coconut and J saw that you could buy a 4-wheeler at Wal-Mart for less than $1,000 (we figured out the conversion from pesos) and Coconut is in the process of writing a persuasive essay as to why we should buy one and ship it to her grandfather's lake house. I'm already convinced and I haven't even read her reasoning yet, but I know that after she and J were allowed to drive our rentals around - something I am certain they would not have been able to do in the States - I could probably get them to kick in some money towards the cost of buying one. They had a blast. 

Guanajuato Adventure

The road to Guanajuato, an important colonial city which sits slightly more than 2,000 meters above sea level in a central Mexican highland valley (that’s about 6,500 feet for those of you still fumbling around with the Imperial as opposed to the Metric system of measurement) was one long, slightly climbing grade followed by one long, steeply climbing grade. Wesley chugged along in third gear, and sometimes second gear, wagging a long tail of more powerful vehicles behind it. When the opportunity presented, I would pull over to allow these very patient drivers to pass, and at one of the stops, at the crest of what we hoped was the apex of our climb (not!), we got out to enjoy the view over green hillsides with nothing to hear but our own words and the occasional car going by. The xx of the land as changed from the hot, arid, brown of the northern deserts where we started our visit to more lush farmland, shade trees, and green hillsides as we’ve moved south and this was a beautiful vantage point to enjoy some solitude and vistas - if there was a way for us to pull Wesley off the road so it could not be seen we may have had our first free Mexican camping experience. J contemplates the vast Mexican highlands on our drive to Guanajuato. The white VW bug was last registered in 2006. We guess someone drove it down the hill and couldn't drive it back up so just left it.

Instead we headed for an “RV park” we had read about in the city of Guanajuato that turned out to be some guys’ driveway. We called it camping in the “yonke” (Spanish for junkyard) because in addition to allowing camping, the place also looked to be a final resting place for some other once proud scraps of metal. So, although the site itself was underwhelming, it did come as advertised – semi-clean bathrooms, lots of barking dogs, and only a short jaunt down some very steep alleyways to el centro historico. It was convenient to find camping within the city so we didn’t have to pack up Wesley to drive to the sights so it worked out perfectly – Morrill RV Park; recommended! Part of the draw also was that it came with a great view of the city spread out on the hillside and – bonus - neighbors from Canada who just arrived in Mexico for their own months’ long road trip. This was our first meet up with fellow travelers and we burned the midnight oil and drank quite a bit of the tequila while swapping stories and dreams for our respective trips.

The view from our campsite in Guanajuato was interesting.

We planned to spend only one night in Guanajuato on our way to San Miguel de Allende, but after not pulling in to camp until late afternoon on Wednesday, we decided to spend all day Thursday as well. While we were standing around at the curbside taco joint waiting for our 5 peso tacos (1 peso currently equals about 6 cents) I was tapped on the shoulder by an American who recently moved to Guanajuato with his wife and two young boys from LA. Hector’s work allows he, Adelaide, and the boys to live remotely from its US location most of the year and they’ve been taking advantage of it with stints in Brazil, Germany, and now Guanajuato. We spent some nice time with them as they showed us the best place to get strawberry juice, nutella tacos, filled us in on some of the history of the city, and helped us navigate the streets to our planned activity for the day – the mummy museum.

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We are trying to implement a system of taking turns picking daily activities and any day your kid chooses to go to a museum you have to do it even if you’ve heard it’s a distasteful, morbid, and creepy spot, and might give you nightmares. Due to the make-up of the soil, when the town had to exhume bodies from certain portions of this cemetery near the turn of the twentieth century, it found that the corpses had been naturally mummified so someone had the interesting idea to put the unclaimed bodies on display so those willing to pay 57 pesos (that’s eleven tacos at the 5 peso taco stand with leftover for a 2 peso piece of bread) could come and gawk at their empty eye sockets, flaccid and flaking skin, and straggly hair. Coconut and J spent a lot of time reading the English language displays which speculated about who these people were in their lives and how they died – one guy was stabbed, another drowned, and one was suspected to have been buried alive based on the position of her hands (covering her face) and the bruises on her arms where she may have beaten them against the stone of the crypt in a desperate, panicked, and unheard, call for help. Apparently it was not uncommon during this time for folks to be buried alive when doctors mistook various epileptic or other seizures as death. Some folks would have a string tied to their finger and attached to a bell above ground so if they woke up from their blackout they could ring the bell and be dug back up – this is where the phrase saved by the bell comes from.

Coconut chose to visit the Mummy Museum but she and J both seem to enjoy the macabre.

Coconut chose to visit the Mummy Museum but she and J both seem to enjoy the macabre. Here they are reading the stories of these three souls.

A real live dead person. Creepy, and Coconut and J are enthralled!

After the museum we walked around the plazas and saw some of the sites – old churches and opulent homes built by the former silver barons – before stopping for a game of cards and bowl of guacamole. J and I had purchased churros – fried bread sprinkled with sugar - earlier in the day, and now, later in the day, the churro vendor showed up to talk to the fruit guy for about twenty minutes with his half sold tray of churros balanced on his head – Mexico’s got talent!

IMG_2183 IMG_2185The yonke where we camped was down a steep graded driveway and I had well-founded nightmares not about mummies waking from the dead to pull me to the netherworld, but about driving Wesley up the driveway to the street and then out of town. Coming into town we had a harrowing experience when Wesley stalled out when it didn’t have a enough power to navigate an almost ninety degree switchback up a ridiculous hill. I had to slam on the brakes and R pulled the emergency brake to prevent us from rolling back over a nearby pedestrian and into the car following right on our tail. I probably took a few thousand miles off the transmission gunning the engine in first gear to make it up the hill.

It took me three tries to get out of the driveway and we had an uneventful drive after that to a hot spring near San Miguel where we met R’s friend Sean and his friend Mittie. We are now comfortably holed up here, in their house, until Tuesday while we plot our next move and the only thing I’m dreaming about is clean clothes and a hot shower.

Land of the Free

We planned to leave La Posada early on Monday in the direction of the City of San Potosi with our ultimate destinations being Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. Our first stop, though, was the grocery store to load up on fruit and water. We had a little scare when Wesley wouldn’t start after we’d run the water pump for ten minutes to empty the month-old Virginia water that still filled the water tank, but after some quick diagnostic work we determined it was only a dead battery so we had a local jump us and we were on our way. Driving in Mexico suits me – it’s basically every man for himself since there is no formal driver’s education program folks are required to take and you can get a license once you reach a certain age – which may be as young as 14 since I’ve seen some pretty young kids driving motorcycles with one or two other friends stacked on behind them.

The view from the captain's seat

What I’ve observed it that it’s acceptable and expected that slow moving vehicles like us drive on the far right side of the road, with two wheels in the shoulder. Faster moving traffic won’t generally pass on the right, which is one thing that really bugged me on the US interstates because cars were flying by on all sides without giving me a chance to get the heck out of the way. Here, if I happen to find myself more to the center of the road because I’m avoiding a pothole, rough patch, or herd of goats, any car coming up on me will flash its lights and then wait until I move over, which I’m more than happy to do once the opportunity presents.

A typical Mexican strip mall on the road from Monterrey to Matehuala - a dirt parking lot fronting a vulka (tire repair shop), restaurant, and otherwise empty landscape

It’s a lot more interesting driving too – I haven’t seen one Office Depot or Best Buy. R and the kids made car bingo cards that included animals grazing on the median, three or more people on a motorcycle, bicyclists traveling in the opposite direction but in our lane, and someone riding a horse, and had the card complete within ten minutes of leaving town. At one point I saw a road crew making a fire by the side of the highway to cook their lunch – which may have been one of the many grazing goats we’ve seen. Many roadside stands advertise “cabrito” – goat – but we’ve yet to stop and have a taste. I’ve seen as many dead dogs on the side of the road as there were dead armadillo in Arkansas and Texas.

80 kilometers an hour is slower than it sounds. Multiply by 6 and drop the last digit and you'll see even Wesley can maintain the pace.

We made it to the smallish city of Matehuala after our first day of driving; merely a way station on our journey. We camped at a hotel/RV park recommended on one of the overlander Facebook groups we’re part of which was really just a parking lot with a very clean bathroom alongside. Matehaula, though, was our first evidence that Mexico has a middle class – we ate at a semi-fancy restaurant alongside a Mexican family that had reserved a few tables to throw some kind of party, people were walking around the streets dressed in suits, and there was a Wal-Mart which we went into hoping to find some good cheddar cheese and came out of with $40 worth of stuff, including a bottle of reposado tequila, two pairs of swim goggles, and some kind of sweet bread in the shape of a lizard.

J versus the sweet lizard bread

Here is J wearing the tail of the lizard as a war-trophy. He dubbed it Rudolph the bread-nosed reindeer.

We also got Wesley a car wash while we shopped, from some guys with buckets and sponges who were hanging around in the parking lot. Apparently the same rule that applies in the U.S. which requires it to rain within hours of washing your car applies also in Mexico and we got a short downpour as soon as we hit Santa Maria del Rio, a small town with dirt streets.

We needed to measure the height of the van to make sure we could get into the secured parking lot in Santa Maria del Rio. While sitting on my shoulders J could just reach the ceiling of the "parking garage" and as you can see here, that gave us plenty of clearance

We had planned to stop the second night in San Luis Potosi but it turned out to be a big, smelly city with lots of American chain stores, so we just drove through the city center and then kept going to this patch of green we saw on our map that looked like a national park but we must have missed a turn somewhere and ended up in this town called Santa Maria del Rio, which is famous for some kind of baby sling woven there which we weren’t in the market for. We were a little bummed about our blunder and it was too late to try to find something different so we got a hotel room on the main square for $30 and found out that we had stumbled into town on a festival night, which I’ll post R’s description of, so it turned out that we had a pretty neat and unplanned experience which are sometimes the ones that you remember most.

The following day we began our lessons in Mexican history in the town of Dolores de Hidalgo where, on September 16, 1810, a local priest named Miguel Hidalgo summoned the town to the church steps and issued what has come to be known as the “Grito de Dolores" (Cry of Dolores - the town originally named Dolores was renamed in honor of Hidalgo) - essentially calling out the Spanish overlords as money grubbing slave masters and urging the people to unite in beating them down. This was the event that marked the beginning of the Mexican war of independence and the day has been adopted as Mexican Independence day, which we will be celebrated shortly.

Some of the pageantry on the streets of Dolores de Hidalgo in anticipation of Mexican Independence Day.

As an American, I’ve learned that Mexico just exists – my New Jersey education did not include a lesson on Mexico and it’s only through some independent learning that I know an intelligent and prosperous indigent population existed before the Europeans arrived and raped and plundered in the name of the Lord, and perhaps the king as well. As we stood in the pretty town square which was decorated to celebrate the anniversary of El Grito, stared at the church steps from which the entreaty was delivered, and ate our hand-churned ice cream that comes in as many flavors as you can name including carrot, and yes, beer, we read to Coconut and J about Hidalgo and the other leaders of the independence movement. We realized the story isn’t that different from the events that gave rise to the American Revolution. Rules that were mostly inspired by squeezing more money out of the colony were imposed on a hard-working, local population by governors doing the bidding of a faraway magistrate, and the people objected.

Statute of Hidalgo with the church in the background and Vanamos family in the foreground

Vanamos family enjoying the famous hand-churned ice cream in Dolores de Hidalgo.

We were able to follow up on this first lesson on Mexican independence at our next stop. Guanajuato is a pretty colonial town high in the mountains, the history of which is centered on silver mining. It was the site of the first victory by the Hidalgo-led freedom fighters over a small garrison of Spaniards and loyalists that had holed up in the town’s granary with all the silver they could stuff in their pockets. Unfortunately for Hidalgo, he was captured shortly afterwards, beheaded, and had his head hung for ten years from a post to discourage other rebellions, which didn’t work, as Mexico eventually gained independence – but we haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet. And even if we don’t get to it – Coconut and J have already learned more than R and I ever did about Mexico and how its people want the same rights, liberties, and opportunities as their Northern neighbors.

Heading out to the Highway

Our time at La Posada has finally come to an end although we tried to extend it as long as we could and we all probably would have been perfectly content to spend the year here and have our skin turn to sandpaper from all the chlorine in the pool. J doing one of the many flips he performed during our week at La Posada

In part, our inertia stems from indecision – we don’t know where to go next. We’ve been in Mexico for 6 days and we've already concluded there is too much to do in this country even if we had a year and we’ve only got four weeks – my in-laws arrive in Belize, which is about 2,358 kilometers (about 1,400 miles) from Monterrey if you go in a straight line, on October 2 and they would be disappointed, to say the least, if we weren’t there to meet them or didn’t show up within a day or two of their arrival.

Here I am with a map of Mexico and no clue which way to go

To give you some perspective, the land area of Mexico is as much as all of Europe, and we are in north central Mexico – so we’ve basically got the whole country below us. There are three roads leading south out of here and we don’t know which to choose – it’s like the Price Is Right but behind every door you’ve picked the grand prize.

The first road we can choose goes southwest and would take us to Zacatecas, where La Feria starts September 3. According to its own web page, La Feria is one of the three most important fairs in Mexico celebrating the country’s independence from Spain and it boasts the usual celebratory events like bullfights, cockfights, and drinking in public. Going this way would also put us in a direct line to Guadalajara, where we plan to meet Sergio, a boy we began sponsoring through Children’s International about a year ago. We told Sergio that we were going to come visit him and since we are probably the only Americans he knows, we want to keep our word so that he doesn’t think poorly of Americans other than Donald Trump. J is also kind of excited about this visit because Sergio has told us that he plays soccer.

A second road goes more or less straight south to the city of San Luis Potosi and beyond that to two of the colonial gems of Mexico – the cities of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende (SMA) – where there is lots of history, architecture, and drinking in public. We’ve got an offer of a place to stay in SMA from a friend of R’s, and we need to pass through there anyway to pick up our VA DMV package that contains the certificate of title with the correct VIN which our friend in Alexandria was able to secure free of charge today. (VA waived the fee to make up for their error of giving us a title with the wrong VIN in the first place). We are also more or less still in line with Guadalajara and that visit to Sergio, so this route makes the most sense. SMA is a big ex-pat community as well which we’ve read about for years and I’m sure that as soon as R sees it and talks to her friend about it, she’s going to want to move there.

A third road goes southeast to the State of San Potosi – land of turquoise rivers and swimming holes, canyoneering and waterfall jumping, and drinking in public. While this direction seems to hold the types of things our family is most into, we would essentially need to double back to get to SMA and Guadalajara, so, as much as we regret missing out on what looks like some beautiful natural areas and fun activities, realistically, we won’t be able to pull off going here, in addition to the other places, with the time that we have. I’m guessing this won’t be the only time this year when we have pass on something we want to do because a year isn’t going to be enough time to see and do all that we want to see and do so we may as well get used to it.

Here are Coconut and J sharing some quality time together and with a screen

One of the other reasons we stuck around La Posada for the entire week was that we wanted to climb in the Potrero Chico. We finally got to do this on Sunday morning and even though my toes are black and blue and I’m sore as a donkey, I’m sure the guide is probably just as sore because by my fourth climb she was basically pulling me up the rock as I took chances with my finger holds and toe holds that I knew I had no real chance of making, but I was so tired that I figured I would either fall and be done or she’d give me just enough help for me to hang on until a more reasonable hold developed. Coconut showed off her climbing skills acquired at Sport Rock in Alexandria, tying all the knots, making all the climbs, and even belaying J and me on one of our climbs.

Maya impressed our climbing guides with her rock know-how and belayed me as I climbed "snake hole". Most of these climbs are well clumb, so there is little danger that a snake actually still lives in the hole.

Poppy climbing

R climbing

Here I am descending from one of the climbs at El Portrero Chico

J climbing at Potrero Chico

ground view

Overall, it was well worth hanging around La Posada the extra time as well as the $100 we paid for four hours climb time, and we got to meet Rudy and Karla, the accomplished climbers and guides that work with La Posada. We would have gone climbing earlier in the week but Rudy and Karla were off somewhere climbing themselves until Friday – so we scheduled to climb with them on Saturday afternoon, but we cancelled because we were hanging out with a Mexican family who had arrived late on Friday night and tried to set up a tent for the first time in the dark. We were playing cards nearby and Coconut has become expert at tent-setting-up so she was able to help them and on Saturday they invited us to swim and BBQ with them and J played with their two boys.

About 150 people and 1600 cans of Tecate beer showed up on Friday night and everyone started drinking as soon as they woke up, though I managed to wait until noon, so by our scheduled climb time the party at La Posada was in full swing, Coconut was deep into her second book of the day, and R was circling me as I hung with the hombres - grilling meat and drinking Clamatos, a mix of beer and tomato juice and maybe clam juice as well that tastes as disgusting as it sounds but as an ambassador of America, I drank what was offered. It seemed like a bad idea to break up the party to go climb.

The same thing happened on Sunday – people partying and drinking all day – and then just before dark, everyone cracked their last Clamato, hopped in their cars, and drove home – apparently without a second thought. In this sense, Mexico does seem to be lawless, but not in the way our media portrays it. I mean, drinking and driving must be illegal, but there doesn’t seem to be any fear of enforcement, or any social stigma against getting blitzed and driving your family home. I saw one mother put her kids in the back seat, then crack a beer and hand it to her husband, who got in the driver’s seat, started the engine, lit a cigarette, and drove them away.

One of the road rules in Mexico is not to drive at night – mostly, we thought, because of the large speed bumps that turn up out of nowhere and the cows, goats, dogs, and people crossing the roads which you can’t see because there are hardly any streetlights. Now, I’m thinking it’s also a good idea to stay off the road at night because of all the drunk people taking their families out for a drive.

La Posada

La Posada has been the perfect landing place for us to rest on our first days in Mexico and plan our next move. It’s in a great natural setting in El Potrero Chico recreation area, which is a world class rock climbing destination, and the gorgeous natural setting, proximity to a grocery and depositario – which is basically a store that sells only beer and chips – and low cost at twenty bucks a night, have all combined to ground us here until Sunday at least. I'm not usually very good at framing pictures, but I got this one good. The mural, the sign, the entire tree, and one of the mountains. Bienvenido a La Posada!

We give credit to the grounds of the compound for the laid back feel of the place, and the staff are basically working all day every day watering the grass, cutting the grass, and picking up the grass, to keep it in pristine condition – it almost seems like everywhere we decide to sit or play they are not far behind with the lawnmower and hose. Early this morning, a funny, periodic noise we could not place sounded to me like R breathing funny but she thought it was the night watchman spreading gravel, which is pretty ridiculous thinking about it now, but at the time it seemed a plausible explanation given the work ethic we’ve seen from the staff. It turned out to be the sound of the water hitting the palm leaves as the sprinkler made its rotation – this is before the sun came up. I don’t think the sprinkler ever gets turned off. The first night we pitched the tent, the sprinkler was actually moved so that the spray came up just inches short of hitting our tent and one night the hose was left turned on at the base of a tree and created a river that threatened to wash out our site. R had to argue with the guy to turn it off or move it. Remember, we are the only people camping on this large lot with lots of trees and grass in areas that we are not. Apart from the obsession with landscaping wherever we happen to be, they’ve been real nice.

Outside the whitewashed concrete walls of the compound is more representative of the Mexico that I expected – potholed, unlined streets; brown, rustling grasses; dog shit and trash. Though, Hidalgo, the town just a few kilometers below La Posada, is pretty clean – I even saw garbage cans out for trash collection. I took a walk up the road from La Posada this morning and the public access area is strewn with litter – David, the hotel manager, says every Sunday there is a beer party up there. It was so quiet though, that I could hear the wings flapping of a bird as it flew up the dry riverbed.

Entrance to the dumpy Potrero Chico recreation area - home of world class rock climbing, empty buildings, and a public pool. Word is that the beer party in the parking lot on Sunday is not to be missed.

Art in the park. Someone painted this pretty cool face on a rock on the park, and yes, that is what you think it is on the ground in front of it. Not mine!

Upon entering the La Posada compound the driveway empties into a gravel parking area bordered on the right side by a low structure housing the office and the staff quarters and on the left side by a row of one room habitaciones for rent. Just past the office is a restaurant (closed), communal kitchen, and an adjoining patio and some barbecues, and across from that are beautifully manicured and shaded grounds for camping stretching deep into the grounds of the compound. At the end of the parking lot are the pool, which is five-star hotel worthy, a shaded patio where we type and lounge, and bathroom and shower facilities for hombres (men) and mujeres (women). Given my fascination with the old west, which I documented in my blog post about the Alamo, you can just imagine how stoked I am to be referred to as an “hombre” and I’ve taken to wearing the top few buttons of my shirt undone to fit the profile.

We decided to pitch our tents in the middle of the field right next to the parking lot, which was a beautifully shaded spot when we got here in the late afternoon on Tuesday but is otherwise in the sun most of the morning and afternoon. This hasn’t been a problem since we are generally at the pool all day and it’s been a great spot for us especially since J is sleeping in the van and nobody else has been here but a few one-night guests and some day-trippers here just to use the pool, but David tells us it might get crazy on the patio of the communal kitchen on Saturday night so we might be right in the middle of the party which I don’t expect will bother me too much but R, Coconut, and J might not like it.

No one here at La Posada but us and giant, unidentified bugs

A closer look at whatever this guy is called

Hanging around at the pool

David, the hotel manager has been great. He’s fed us the Wifi password, let us play with his guinea pig, and on his one day off for the week, he took us into Monterrey, the big city. We had planned to take a taxi to the bus station in Hidalgo, the town a few kilometers below La Posada, to catch a bus to Monterrey and then metro to the city center, but David must have mentioned to the owner of La Posada that he planned to bring the guests to the city, so Luis, who had some business in town offered to drive us which was very nice. Little did we know that he drives a compact, so R, Coconut, J, and I had to squeeze into the back seat, which we didn’t fit into all that well so R had to scoot herself into the space between the front seats and hog all the air conditioning though some trickled around her to cool those of us riding in third class.

While Luis was gassing his ride, which he would not let me pay for, I thanked David for arranging the ride, especially since he had to chat it up with his boss in the front seat, which I remember from my prior life that is fading much more quickly than I thought it would, can be an awkward thing. David said that in Mexico it is common for employees to have a social relationship with the boss.

Monterrey wasn’t all that exciting though we did get to ride the subway which was much cleaner than the DC Metro – I guess no one reads the Express newspaper or drinks Starbucks coffee and leaves them behind on their way to work – and get to sample “dog” tacos from a street vendor for 10 pesos, which is about 50 cents each. A dog taco is what Nathan, our host in Austin, called tacos from a street vendor because who knows what they are made with. Coconut had the chicken variety and J had a bean version and they both liked them. We also went to a Mexican history museum. Most of the exhibits were explained in Spanish so we were able to breeze through two floors in about an hour. I learned that the different periods of Meso-American culture has many gods of corn. While we were in Monterrey we also got to FedEx the necessary paperwork to Virginia to assist our proxy to secure a Certificate of Title from VA DMV so that we can leave Mexico with Wesley when the time comes. We learned today that the paperwork was already delivered to our house in Virginia in less than 24 hours, which is pretty amazing when you consider that it took us over three weeks to get here.