Since we left El Salvador on June 9 we have driven Wesely over 1,000 miles across Guatemala and Mexico and I’ve got the driver’s tan to prove it - my left forearm is as red as tomato soup. It’s not our style to blow through places so quickly, but at this point in our year long trip we are focused on getting back to Alexandria for better or for worse. Despite our accelerated pace, we’ve managed to squeeze some fun in between our long driving days.
We thought leaving behind our responsibilities and driving overland through the Americas in a 1985 VW Westfalia camper van would be endless servings of strawberries and cream. But it has turned out to be a lot harder than we expected. I often find myself thinking of what our new friend Claude said to me one night as we washed our dishes in San Cristobal, Mexico. Claude is Swiss and has been driving around the world with his wife for almost fifteen years. He said, “Everyone at home thinks we’re on vacation. But this is hard work.”
Now, to be sure, this is not work in the sense that my shift starts at 9 a.m. and the boss is going to be pissed if I’m late. One of the liberating things about this lifestyle is that we have the complete ability to do whatever we want. If we want to go to the waterfall to swim today we can. Or we can do it tomorrow. If we want to go to Mexico, or stay in Guatemala, the choice is ours.
We left Alexandria, Virginia, on August 1, with plans to be in Belize City on October 2. Coconut and J’s grandparents wanted to meet us somewhere and Belize in October seemed reasonable, though I’m sure we never looked at a map or actually figured out how many miles away it was and how many hours of driving would be required. R and I aren’t that type of overlander - detail oriented. We just kind of go with our gut. On September 16, when we were still stuck in Zihuatanejo, a great Mexican beach town on the Pacific side that we had stumbled into a week earlier without any idea of what we were getting into, we did the math and figured that Belize was still about a million miles away and that we could never get there in two weeks and a few days so we had a change of plans and took R’s parents to San Augustinillo, a different Mexican beach town on the Pacific side.
A change in plans – that’s pretty much been the story of our trip. By Christmas we thought we would be in Panama. Instead, we might leave Mexico and be in Guatemala. We spent our first week in Mexico at La Posada, north of Monterrey, where we only planned to spend a night. We spent four nights in San Miguel de Allende because we were having fun with Sean and Mittie, a whole week at Zihua; seven nights in Puerto Escondido; more than a month in Oaxaca; and now, a week plus in San Cristobal de las Casas which I was pretty much ready to skip except for a hot shower and hotel room pillow.
We crossed the border into Mexico on August 26, and if you add it all up, we’ve been here for more than 15 weeks when we only planned to spend about six. Overindulgence has always been part of my identity – too much of everything is just enough, as the Dead sing in “I Need a Miracle” – but I didn’t expect Mexico to grab me by the huevos like it has.
The natural beauty of the country is unbelievable – like nothing I have ever seen. Driving roads where the horizon lays out mountains on top of mountains is terrifying, okay, especially when you are driving the equivalent of a tricycle, but once you get past that, the feeling that vista gives you is tremendous - you feel wild; unhinged. Like anything can happen but it will all be fine. And the people are so friendly. How often have you said, “Hello. Good morning” to every single person you passed on the street, including those riding by in a taxi and the driver? And had it returned? Americans' perception of Mexico is so skewed by media portrayal that we should sue for libel. Is a bunch of guys standing on the corner drinking Coca Cola and eating grilled corn on the cob threatening to you? How about when they all raise their Styrofoam cups in recognition, genuinely smile, and say “Buenos noches”?
So, our plans have changed a lot and we’ve had a hard time getting out of Mexico. We haven’t needed an explanation because we haven’t asked any questions – we go with our gut. Along the way we’ve run into other folks who are wobbling from there to here, but no matter what song they’re singing, when we tell them how we’ve got stuck, it’s the same refrain: you’re doing the right thing. There’s no place like here and there’s no place like now if you’re enjoying yourself.
And we are. Since we arrived on Sunday at Rancho San Nicolas, with plans to spend a night or two, a family of four from Canada has pulled in next to us. An older couple from Switzerland who has been here before pulled in next to them, and a young couple from Switzerland who has not been to Mexico before but took 14 months to drive up from Uruguay pulled in next to them. This has driven the American who has been here for the last month to the corner of the grounds – not because he’s not social, but because too much English spoken outside his window breaks his concentration while he finishes his novel. On Friday night, we all went out to dinner.
On Friday morning I took a walk on the path that leads steeply up from the campground, crossed a few barbed wire fences to the top of the hill, and gathered my breath while I watched the mist rise from the fields. I came down along the road and took a path that led to a river where I saw an old man gathering sticks like gold from the bank to put on the fire where he was heating his breakfast. When I arrived back at camp at 8:30, J was in the common room. He had started a fire in the fireplace and was playing pool with his two new friends. Coconut, who will be a teenager on Monday and has been acting like one lately by sleeping to 10 a.m. or later, was not far behind. Before lunch, she was demonstrating to the boys how to draw a bow to shot an arrow, and actually joined the Wiffle Ball game, which the young Swiss guy joined too, after sitting and watching us for about a minute.
Coconut told us later in the day that she wanted to stay here until at least Tuesday. We planned to start our drive to Palenque, a major Mayan ruin, on Sunday, but now - what the hell? We may have lots of questions about what we’ve done, and what we are going to do, but there are no regrets.
Chiapas state has the most independent-minded indigenous culture in Mexico. Parts of the state were never fully subjugated by the Spaniards, and several tribes continue to deny Catholicism as the national religion and not pose for tourists’ pictures. The state even rejected joining both Mexico and the United Provinces of Central America subsequent to the eviction of the Spaniards in the 1820’s before deciding by referendum to join Mexico. We’ve witnessed some of that edginess during our short stay in San Cristobal de las Casas. We arrived during the week long fiesta for the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is the patron saint of Mexico, and she apparently requires that the band start playing at five a.m. to the accompaniment of exploding sticks of dynamite and someone yanking on the church bell 100 times every fifteen minutes. Despite the constant drizzle of rain, uncharacteristic, we are told, the people’s spirits, and the fireworks’ wicks, have not been dampened.
We didn’t plan to stay in San Cristobal for long, having just come from an extended stay in a colonial city (Oaxaca), but I ran Wesley into a telephone pole so we are grounded for a few days while it gets repaired. As we drove to a body shop recommended by someone that we just met, I described to Coconut and J how the repairman would drill a hole into the middle of the dent, insert a tool that would splay out from the inside, and then pull the metal back into shape. Instead, the body guy comes out into the rain and mud with a heavy mallet and a piece of two by four and starts banging away. In an ironic twist, he thinks he might have the van a few days so he can get the paint to match. A perfectionist.
After watching this spectacle for as long as we could take it, we started walking back to town. At a busy intersection, we saw a kid - a teenager - with a plastic liter bottle filled with gasoline. He took a swig from the bottle, spewed flames from his mouth, and then daintily dabbed his lips and chin with a greasy rag. It looked really cool, but was a depressing thing to witness. We gave him fifteen pesos. I told Coconut and J that if they ever needed money that badly they should come talk to me no matter how grouchy I am that day.
Later, while we were eating lunch at the fanciest pizza place in town, a parade came marching through the main pedestrian street. We quickly ran to the balcony of the restaurant to watch and saw an older man at the end of the line nonchalantly lighting bottle rockets with his cigarette and launching them from his hand like he was Cape Canaveral. We didn’t feel nearly so badly about this - in fact, we could hardly stop laughing it was so funny.
The fireworks culture in Mexico is quite different than what we are used to. Explosions are mandatory for any celebration, and ubiquitous at all other times. I think the school principal will often set off a rocket in lieu of opening bell. R and I had fun shopping for cojetes before our Thanksgiving celebration and the kids had fun setting them off - under my supervision, of course, for whatever that is worth. When J had a friend come over for a play date, lighting off fireworks was the featured activity.
Anyway, the rebellious strand that permeates life here seems to have trickled over - this morning even R, a notorious pacifist, got into the act. When the first volley of gunpowder was detonated outside our door several clicks before sunrise, she rolled over and said, “I’m going to kill them.”