Panama City, Panama
We’re heading back to the UK to celebrate a special birthday, and see family and friends. It just so happens that as we fly out on 10 Sept, it’ll be a year to the day since we picked up our beloved campervan in California.
It’s been the most exciting and liberating year of our lives. And there’s plenty more to come in Episode 2: South America.
We’ve learned a lot too – about driving in Latin America, about living in a van, about understanding what the hell is going on in a different culture, and about ourselves. Below – in no particular order – are some of the lessons learned and observations made.
WARNING: – the following list may contain sweeping generalisations, blatant stereotyping and unashamedly subjective statements.
It’s hard to convey just how freeing it is to be lighter of things. With a few small exceptions (who packed the airmail writing pad – what is this, 1985?) we have nothing in the van that we do not need.
But even when you whittle your possessions down to the bare essentials, you still seem to spend an awful lot of time tidying up…
And should be publicly held to account.
All we’re saying is – if there’s a road there, put it on the map, and if there’s not a road there, don’t. Simple.
This is a cultural thing which we’ve found to be universally problematic – and occasionally quite amusing – for road-trippers in particular.
In Central America, when people don’t know things or can’t do something, they don’t want to admit it and say no. So they often say yes, and then just make stuff up. This is rarely malicious, but that doesn’t make it any less confusing. As one ex-pat delicately put it: “People here just don’t want to deliver bad news.”
Imagine how this translates when you are seeking directions to somewhere. After a few weeks of being sent on wild goose chases, we realised that the person who gave the directions actually had no clue where it was. We started to pick up on the subtle gestures that suggested the giver of directions was fabricating them – such as the general overhead-wave-of-the-hand-in-no-particular-direction.
It’s also an unhelpful habit when one is asking a mechanic if they know how to do something. They will always say yes, regardless of the facts.
This unwillingness to deliver bad news can be lethal when mixed with the Latin American sense of punctuality (ie there is none). Ask someone when something will be ready, and – if the true figure is too unpalatable – they’ll give a more agreeable, but fictional, assessment eg ‘half an hour’. If you actually return in half an hour, you’ll be met with an astonished stare.
We try not to be all European about these things, but in all cultures, habits are hard to break.
Our travels only ever serve to bolster our conviction that the vast majority of people in the world are decent and kind.
Try to find a road map in a petrol station here and you’ll be laughed out of the place. But if you want to stock up on cold beers, there are hundreds to choose from!
This we find disconcerting enough. But when the gas stations provide tables and chairs so their customers can sit there and drink their beers before they set off again… well that’s just truly frightening.
It is an exceptional thing here to see a child really whining or having a tantrum. On the rare occasion that they do, they are totally ignored.
Now, we have been warned by friends with children that offering any theories as to why this may be so would almost certainly alienate every parent in western Europe and the US, and probably beyond.
So let’s just leave it there as an indisputable fact.
Deciding what you are going to eat based on reading a menu or sign at a roadside stall, cafe, or restaurant is a fool’s game.
It is quite possible here to walk up to a stall which proclaims ‘we sell tamales’, only to find they only make them on Thursday and Sunday afternoons.
Or sit down at a ‘grilled chicken’ cafe, to be told there’s no chicken.
Not only that, when you ask for the advertised item, you are often met with total bafflement from behind the counter.
When someone indicates here, it can mean may things. However, it’s very unlikely to mean “I will imminently be turning left, or right.”
A left indicator may mean “you can overtake me safely now”, or “you cannot overtake me safely now”. Equally, it could mean “I forgot to turn my indicator off and it’s been going for several hours” or “I am, in fact, turning right”.
Hands are a more direct form of communication. We have had to suppress our terribly British manners and learn that if we want to nudge into a line of traffic, indicating and waiting is pointless. Far better to lean out of the window and assertively gesture to the person behind to let you in.
It helps us stay in touch with family and friends, and the world news, like never before. It helps us organise the trip, and to record it on the blog. It helps us stay entertained with new music, podcasts and films.
It’s also a complete pain in the arse. We often wonder about the amount of time wasted looking for decent wi-fi, waiting for stuff to download, waiting for stuff to upload, shouting ‘can you hear us?’ to our parents via Skype…
And on the rare occasion that we stay in a hostel, we notice that travellers don’t make friends like they used to. (Sorry to sound so old, but it’s true).
Is it worth it? Only if you maintain a balance between experiencing the trip, and recording / planning / looking towards home.
Once you remove work stress and hideous working patterns from the equation, the body gets a chance to tell you that it likes to sleep for about 9 hours a night. What a revelation.
Doing a road trip through a region with a road sign system that is at worst non-existent and at best sporadic, incomplete or illogical, is a challenge. And we rise to that challenge! We will not be defeated.
It’s not an attractive human trait, but we’ve noticed that the more we become accustomed to one country, the more uncertain we become about the country that comes next. Perhaps understandably, when we left the US we stocked up on a few food treats that we thought might not be so common in Mexico. By the time we left Mexico, three months later, we were panic-buying again: “We better get some decent chilli sauce before we go to Guatemala, it’s probably crap there. And what if they don’t have red wine?! Better get some more…”
In this age of blogging we often debate the nature of our own blog, and that of others.
What we most want is to be truthful – warts and all – whilst aspiring to entertain and to put down a record of our trip for ourselves.
But we do censor ourselves – at both ends of the scale. We have been painfully aware of how difficult things are for many people, and how lucky we are to be in this position. We are often travelling through areas of abject poverty. And while the economic problems of home cannot compare with the deprivation around us here, the issues at home are real and grim for many people.
So it’s probably true to say we try to avoid being smug about all the good times we have. Conversely, when we were feeling fed up about being stranded in Honduras, we felt we didn’t have the right to complain about just how down we were some days.
If anything, we possibly over-egg the problems, without emphasising enough that they are all just part of a road-trip like this. We do not have to work, and sorting out the logistics of this journey is – for now – our ‘occupation’.
The thing is though, the bad stuff is just funnier…
Very loud, bad pop and rock music is part of the fabric here. Luckily we spend most of our time away from urban areas, but when we do stay in towns we are often baffled that people seem to put up with noise levels that would have the inspectors calling back home.
If there are any noise nuisance rules, they are not enforced. This means nightclubs can play music so loud it is massively distorted, often in the open air or without sound-proofing.
Many shops – and, inexplicably, pharmacies – set up PA systems outside with distorted tunes crackling out of them. They seem to be under the impression that this will attract customers.
And one of the worst culprits are evangelical churches, who bellow out tuneless hymns at all hours.
On beaches that are popular with locals, one has to camp with some trepidation if it’s the weekend. It is normal and acceptable here to pull your car up right next to someone else and crank up the stereo to levels that make the sand vibrate. Ouch.
We’ve never claimed to be doing this trip for any lofty environmental reasons. I’m not sure driving 40,000-odd miles would really qualify anyway…
But one of the by-products of doing a journey like this is that we’ve become very aware of what we are consuming, because much of the time we need to be self-sufficient when we are camping.
We can only carry so much water, and we can’t always be sure there will be running water in every place we camp. Likewise, we only have a limited amount of power in the van, to run lights and re-charge appliances, if we are stopped for a few days and have no outside power sources. And we cannot store loads of unnecessary perishable food.
Of course, if we do need those things we can up sticks and move, but sometimes we don’t want to. So we have to think about what we most need, and prioritise.
Before we left home I don’t think we gave a moment’s thought to how much water we really needed to boil two portions of pasta. But we do now.
Some people rely on spiritual comfort to get them through the hard times. We just need Danny Baker on Radio 5 Live.
We don’t mind admitting that among the things we miss about being away from home are the familiar cultural references and shared sense of humour you have with people from your own part of the world.
We feed this hunger with radio podcasts and a few TV series that we watch on the laptop.
If the BBC’s Danny Baker could see us dancing about in the van to his show’s theme tune each week, we think he’d be quite tickled.
Thanks for following the journey so far. See you in a few weeks.