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Honduras – we love you, we hate you…

27 Jun

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
[by Paula]

We got the van out of Honduras last week, and I have to say we didn’t even give it a cursory backwards glance as we gleefully skipped southwards over the border. We’ve since been busy loving Nicaragua – the gorgeous camping spots, volcanoes and lakes galore, and the (mostly) blissfully smooth roads. Yes, now that we are sad little petrol-heads, things like smooth roads get us very, very excited.

We are, frankly, relieved to be here. We had a bit of a rocky relationship with Honduras and gladly decided to go our separate ways. It was for the best.

It didn’t help that our ‘back-on-the-road’ celebrations earlier this month were somewhat marred by a couple of things.

Volcano, Nicaragua

Can’t move for volcanoes in gorgeous Nicaragua.

We picked up the van on a Friday afternoon, and took it back to the hostel we were staying at in San Pedro Sula which – we may have mentioned before – is a very dangerous city. The murder capital of the world, in fact. For this reason we did not go out after dark on any of the previous 10 nights we’d stayed there. But this night Honduras were playing Panama in a World Cup qualifier, so we arranged to go to the game and the co-owner came along with some of her friends, leaving her sister in charge.

We were having an amazing night. Tens of thousands of people stood to sing the national anthem, the beers were flowing, everyone was really up. The guy sitting behind us had just returned to Honduras for the first time in 20 years, after living in the US, and was beside himself with excitement. We both said later that it was one of those moments – and there have been a few, despite everything – where we thought, ‘aw, Honduras is lovely, Hondurans are lovely people, maybe it ain’t so bad after all’…

Then at half time that all came crashing down. We got a call to say there was an armed robbery at our hostel. Two men with guns had ambushed six backpackers as they arrived, burst inside and robbed them and another guy already inside. Some of them were left with nothing but the clothes they stood up in – passports, money, cards, whole backpacks, everything gone. Thankfully no one was killed or injured. As the locals reminded us later, not all robberies in San Pedro end the same way.

As we were driving back there from the game we were really terrified. The phonecalls from the hostel were increasingly frantic and confused and at one point it sounded like we might be returned to a siege, with the gunmen still inside. But when we arrived they had gone, and the police were there. Jeremy and I had spent the intervening half an hour trying to face up to the possibility that we might have lost all our stuff too – as all our valuables and car keys were upstairs in a bedroom and we didn’t know if the whole place had been ransacked.

It hadn’t, and our stuff was still where we’d left it. The van was safely parked behind a solid gate next door. More importantly, we realised how lucky we had been to pick that one night to go out.

No one blamed the hostel, who handled the situation brilliantly. Sadly it’s not unheard of for tourists to be followed to their hotels, or jumped when they arrive somewhere. Often the taxi drivers are directly involved or tip people off. Most hotels – as this one does – use taxi drivers they know, but in this case the travellers had turned up on spec.

Pink boa snake, Cayos Cochinos, Honduras

Honduras has some cool and unique stuff, like this pink boa (I know, it looks white, but it is called a pink boa..)

No one got much sleep that night. In the morning we helped the people that had been robbed as much as we could, with spare clothes and use of our Skype account etc, before heading off to Lago de Yojoa, south of San Pedro. Two of the victims – young Danish backpackers – decided to come with us as they couldn’t replace their passports until after the weekend. We bundled them into the van with what was left of their belongings. They were still shocked after what had happened, but remarkably philosophical.

As we drove along one of them said: “We’re so glad we met you. Proper grown-ups who are responsible and know what they are doing.”

We just looked at each-other, silently thinking: “Holy shit! What makes them think we are grown up and responsible?!..”. We felt so old, but then realised we were actually old enough to be their parents.

We were absolutely desperate to get them there safely, and pulled into the lake hostel a couple of hours later, very relieved.

However, on the way, we’d heard a disturbing new noise coming from the van. It didn’t sound healthy at all, although the new transmission seemed to be performing fine. We pushed it out of our minds temporarily and set about enjoying our first night camping in months.

Coffee finca camping, Honduras

Camping again. Heaven.

We slept in a beautiful coffee finca, teeming with birds and amazing bugs, and so tranquil and dark at night. We’d missed the van so much – every little task, no matter how mundane, felt exciting. It was just brilliant to be independent again.

While there we talked to a Honduran woman, from San Pedro, about our feelings for the country. She had just returned after spending five years in Italy, and was shocked to see how violent her city had become. People hide in their cars, behind high walls and razor-wire fences or in soulless shopping malls. Many use drive-thru shops and banks instead of walking around and there are armed guards everywhere, even on some residential streets. There are many people who will try to defend it as an okay place to live, but to us this is not an acceptable way of life.

We told her: “One minute we warm to Honduras, we see its good side, and then the next we are really scared.”

She said: “I’m from here, and I feel exactly the same.”

We’ve tried hard not to be too negative. We wanted to love the country, not least because we had bad memories of a previous visit 10 years ago, when Jeremy was very ill there. This time we met lots of wonderful people in Honduras, and saw a tonne of natural beauty that is hard to beat. We tried to recognise that being stranded somewhere can give it a sinister feel that is partly imagined, because you feel trapped and are no longer staying out of choice.

Our mechanic Ivan, San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Our Honduran mechanic, Ivan, must have been very glad to see the back of us.

After a couple of nights at the finca we decided to drive-test the van, to try to work out how serious the noise was. We drove up and down the nearby hills – scratch, scrape, scrape. It was still there. Much as it was truly the last thing we wanted to do, we reluctantly accepted we’d need to head back to the mechanic in San Pedro Sula to get it checked out.

We pulled in that afternoon. I’m sure he was as depressed to see us as we were to be there. Even the security guard had a face that said: ‘oh hello, back again (sigh).’

After much thought we decided to go back to the same hostel – what happened was not their fault, we still felt safe there and we wanted to support them. And it turned out others had made the same decision and gone back too, which speaks volumes for the wonderful owners, who helped us beyond measure during our many stays there.

The mechanic said he’d found a damaged wheel bearing, which might be the source of the noise. But he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get the right part to replace it in Honduras. I stopped listening then as I was too busy hyperventilating into a paper bag.

The upshot was, we were stuck in San Pedro for another, very very long five days. Thankfully a new wheel bearing was found and ordered, and arrived the next day. But the noise was still there. The mechanic wondered aloud if there might be a problem with the new transmission. Our hearts sank again. Finally, another problem with the brake calipers was found as a possible source. They thought they’d sorted it, but the noise remained.

On the final day, when we went to collect it, our mechanic – usually a sharp, clean-shaven, tidy kind of guy – had a five o’clock shadow and tousled hair. We felt partially responsible. Had we broken him too?

Volcan Telica, Nicaragua

It’s behind you! Another spectacular smokin’ Nicaraguan volcano.

He trudged out to the reception area and said: “There’s nothing more we can do. We’ve fixed everything but the noise is still there sometimes,” and concluded that it was nothing serious, that we could safely drive it like that and just live with it. Of course, we haven’t heard the noise since.

We drove off, happy and excited again. Nicaragua awaited! We headed south and looked for somewhere to camp near the border. We pulled into what we thought was a church with lots of land and asked if we could camp there. The man very kindly phoned to ask his boss, and then gently told Jeremy that the answer was no – it was a youth rehabilitation centre and they didn’t think it would be appropriate. Oops. Now that would have been a weird last night in Honduras.

We eventually camped up in a basic little deserted turicentre, with rooms and a slimy swimming pool. The owners, an old couple, had their house in the grounds and we parked up under a tree in front of it. She cleaned up a toilet especially for us but said there would be no access to it after midnight. We told her we’d be leaving early for the border.

Next morning she got up early and shuffled out to our van in her nightdress. She said she’d opened the side door to their home and we were welcome to go inside, wash and use the loo. For about the millionth time on this trip, we wondered if we’d find such hospitality and trust in our own part of the world.

Other than border officials, that old lady was the last person we saw in Honduras, and for that we are very glad.

Days: 268
Miles: 9,003
Things we now know to be true: There’s a fine line between love and hate.

Back on the road!

9 Jun

San Pedro Sula, Honduras
[by Paula]

The van leaves the mechanic

Vroom vroooom. Happy days.

We are back on the road!

It’s true. Almost ten weeks (actually 69 days, or 1,656 hours) after breaking down, we collected the van yesterday, all spick and span. I did actually kiss the mechanic this time – he was a little taken aback. Thanks to everyone for all their concern and encouragement. We know it’s only a van, but some days in the last two months have been tricky to deal with. But we’ve managed to see a lot and meet some great people while waiting. So much so that this post is double length, so get a cup of tea and settle in.

At the end of the post are more teary thanks, to all the people who have helped us during this mechanical episode. Cheers all.

So, we are super-excited to be leaving San Pedro Sula today for our first night of camping in a long while. Tonight we shall no doubt celebrate this milestone with a beer or two.

But what have we been up to since we last blogged?

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, where life goes at its own pace.

Just before we left Estelí, there was one last thing to do. Watch the final of the European Champions League – the result of which, although Jeremy’s team Tottenham was not playing, was crucial for their forthcoming season.

I opted to meet him in a bar towards the end of the game. I turned up and searched the room, my eyes sweeping back and forth to try to locate the lone gringo nursing a beer near the TV screen. No sign. I was just starting to get concerned when I saw his face popping up from within a group of raucous young Nicaraguans. He waved, just a little frantically.

I headed over to find that in the 80 minutes since I’d left him, he’d been co-opted by the most steamingly drunk people in the bar. One guy was sleeping at the table with a half-eaten piece of fried chicken still hanging from his mouth, another was just continually high-fiving Jeremy and telling him how much he loved him. Four blokes who’d just got a little bit over-excited about the game. It’s comforting to know that some things are just the same, the world over.

We left Estelí and took the long, long journey to Nicaragua’s remote Caribbean coast (more commonly known as the Atlantic coast), which involved two buses and two boat rides over two days. The main journey ended in Pearl Lagoon, a small dusty town in an area that’s home to Creole, Miskito and Garífuna people. It’s one of those places where hotels and eateries are few, and those that exist open when they feel like it, which can be a little baffling for the newly-arrived traveller. But we soon happily settled for a waterside cabin, complete with decks and hammocks, that was part of a great restaurant and bar.

Pearl Lagoon seemed to us like a mixed-up place; a microcosm of many of the things that are great, and not so great, about parts of Central America.
It had so much natural beauty on its doorstep, but a lack of infrastructure to support what some visitors would want. On the other hand, there was a sense that maybe some people liked it just fine that way.

Pearl Cayes, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Cayes – not too shabby a beach.

As a region that’s seemingly ignored by central government, an investment gap has been filled by drug traffickers, who use the lagoon on their way north and apparently can be relied upon more to build new facilities such as the town’s only internet cafe. Under-employment seems to mean there’s a heavy reliance on migrant relatives sending cash from abroad, and chronic boredom is apparent on the streets.

Even small businesses seem to run hand-to-mouth, like the rustic little bakery-cafe we went to for breakfast each day. We’d order scrambled eggs, and they’d disappear out of the door, then come back with six eggs from the shop.

Set apart from the rest of Nicaragua, locals in English-speaking Pearl Lagoon often refer to their countrymen as ‘the Spaniards’ – many of whom have been coming from the Pacific side to settle in the east, to the chagrin of some lagoon natives.

One minute we were trying to tune in to the patois English, then the next someone would speak to us in Spanish, while others just constantly flipped between the two.

Seafood soup - rondon - at Pearl Cayes

Cooking up a seafood lunch, Pearl Cayes

Without a doubt it’s a fascinating and stunning place to spend time. We took a boat trip out to Pearl Cayes, which had scenery to rival any idyllic Caribbean setting. It was the stuff of a desert island fantasy – as the first cayes appeared on the horizon I half expected to see a guy with ragged trousers and a long beard, waving madly – but then I realised Jeremy was on the boat with me.

Some of the islands – which have been disappearing amid rising sea levels – were merely a mound of bright white sand, and a tuft of palm trees.

We stopped at one and snorkelled in turquoise waters while our guide cooked up one of the local dishes, called rondon – an exquisite coconut milk-based soup of fresh fish, shrimps, crab, plantains, coco and yucca. It’s worth noting that one of the fish in the pot was caught by Jeremy with a hand-held line – his first ever catch.

Another day, after a failed boat trip to a different village in the lagoon, we found ourselves at a loose end. Before long we were found and adopted for the day by Anselmo, from Pearl Lagoon, and his British wife Libby, their baby son John, and their two visiting English friends Jen and Mike.
After a feast of a picnic we drove out to the nearby Miskito fishing village of Awas, to swim and enjoy an incredible sunset. With its undeveloped open spaces and waterfront palapas, it would have been the perfect camping spot, and we daydreamed wistfully about the absent van.

Sunset in Awas, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset at Awas, a quiet Miskito fishing village near Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua.

At one point Anselmo appeared carrying a blue crab he’d just caught, which was put in the car as an addition to the evening meal. We were invited to the couple’s house for dinner, where he whipped up a delicious rondon, complete with the blue crab. It was a great opportunity to chew the fat about the local culture and – with the four being involved in aid projects in Nicaragua – the whole development debate.

After a few nights there we did a marathon run all the way back to Honduras, with two days of 12-hour journeys to get back to San Pedro Sula, where the van was.
En route, we changed from boat to bus at the port of El Rama. While we were hanging around for the bus we bumped into a former BBC colleague of mine, Lynda Smith, who has been working in a school in Granada in Nicaragua. It was one of those surreal double-take moments! We’ll swing by and see her again once we reach Granada with the van.

That day we received an email to say that the transmission was due to be delivered in a couple of days!! We could hardly believe this episode might actually be reaching a conclusion.

We hot-footed it to the D&D Brewery and hostel at Lago de Yojoa – where, for complicated reasons, the transmission was being sent – and waited it out. The day it was due was a long one. Every time Jeremy heard a truck in the driveway he sprinted out. It didn’t come.

Cachuate, Cayos Cochinos, northern Honduras

You’d be forgiven for thinking all we’ve done is laze on the beach. Here’s another stunner at Cacahuate, Cayos Cochinos, northern Honduras.

The next day Bobby, D&D’s owner who had been helping us with the shipping process, called the company and they promised it would be there in a few hours. A huge truck pulled in at lunchtime. I was too nervous to look, having – rather pessimistically – convinced myself that the wrong package was going to arrive. But it was our transmission, it really really was!

We loaded it into the back of a pick-up truck taxi and drove straight to the mechanic’s in San Pedro Sula. Ivan, the boss there, was surely as happy to see this bloody spare part as we were; he’d had our van sitting festering in his yard for more than eight weeks!

Ivan said he wanted up to eight days to work on it. So we headed off again, this time to Honduras’s north coast and another Garífuna village called – rather cringeingly – Sambo Creek. Not sure who’s idea it was to name it that…

This region of Honduras is particularly damn hot. We steamed for a few days, ‘cooling’ off in the bath-warm ocean and waiting for some other tourists to show up so we could take a trip to the nearby islands, Cayos Cochinos.

After a couple of days, we set off on a magical day trip to the cayes. Now, I don’t want to sound all fussy about which idyllic Caribbean desert islands are better than which – but these kicked the arse of just about anything we’ve seen. Just impossibly gorgeous. We snorkelled in sparkling waters on the beautiful coral reef, among luminescent fish. Incredible.

Cayos Cochinos, Honduras

We broke down while leaving Cayos Cochinos and had to be towed to this island. Nightmare.

We then sat down to a lunch of fish so fresh it was practically flapping about on the plate, accompanied by delicious coconut rice n’ beans and fried plantains.

On the way back our boat broke down. Are we jinxed? Was this a bad omen? It was about the most untraumatic breakdown imaginable though. We were towed by another boat to yet another perfect desert island, and jumped in for a swim while the drivers installed a spare engine. Bonus!

Now, why can’t all mechanical problems be like that?

Days: 250
Miles: 8,136
Things we now know to be true: It only took Phileas Fogg 11 days more to circumnavigate the globe.


PICS PICS PICS: We put a few Honduras pics on Flickr recently. More to come soon. Click here to see them.


And finally… GRACIAS / THANKS! to …

Tesla and dog Jacob, La Hamaca hostel, San Pedro Sula

Tesla (pictured with their gorgeous dog Jacob) and Juan Pablo were a lifeline for us at La Hamaca hostel in San Pedro Sula.

  • Elvin Henriquiz and family, at the car wash in Las Flores, Lempira, where we first broke down. First they rescued us, then they took care of us, which we will never forget.
  • Our mechanic Jorge Ivan Canales at Flash Centro Automotriz in San Pedro Sula. For getting that thing to go; for being a professional and not just whacking it with a hammer.
  • Chris & Mary at Pop Top Heaven for getting us a new transmission; collecting it, measuring it, weighing it and photographing it; answering a zillion emails, and just generally doing everything they could to get us going again.
  • Bobby Durette at D&D Brewery in Los Naranjos, for helping us with the shipping of our transmission, and for putting up with our constant emails and fretting.
  • The lovely Tesla and Juan Pablo at La Hamaca hostel in San Pedro Sula for their warm welcome, help and enthusiasm, dinner-time chats, lifts to the supermarket and more. Every time we went back there it was like coming home.
  • Fellow road-trippers Zach & Jill at Anywhere That’s Wild, Erik & Joe (Pepe) at Apollo’s Journey, James & Lauren at Home on the Highway, Andy & Dunia at Earth Circuit, Brad & Sheena at Drive Nacho Drive, the guys at Life Remotely and Fanny & Chris at Bip Bip Americas – for their many words of encouragement and empathy.
  • Cheers. xx

    ‘Bad news sells’ shocker

    19 May

    Estelí, Nicaragua
    [by Jeremy]

    We’ve been back at Spanish school in Estelí, Nicaragua while we await delivery of the new transmission – yes, still waiting. Last we heard it was, allegedly, on a ship heading this way.

    Meanwhile, in a desperate bid to avoid studying the present perfect subjunctive tense we’ve been playing around with some trip statistics. As journalists we know you can make statistics say whatever you want them to – if they don’t, you just pretend they don’t even exist.

    View from our Esteli apartment during a rainstorm

    Shall we postpone that shopping trip, dear? – it’s a bit drizzly out. Road turns to river outside our apartment.

    Even knowing that, some of our stats make for some surprising reading – others less so. And there are a few conclusions we can draw from the geeky analysis, pie charts and databases we’ve consulted. Chief among those is the fact that you people are sick.

    Actually, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to seasoned hacks like ourselves, but our blog reader stats show a massive spike from the day we broke down, to today. You clearly revel in the misfortune of others. Bastards.

    More bizarrely, we’ve been monitoring the search terms people have used before arriving at our blog. It’s to be expected that, for example, ‘Baja camping’, or ‘Lago de Atitlan’, or even ‘stranded in Honduras’ would rank high among the searches.

    But who is it that scours the internet using the terms ‘Mariah Carey’s hands’? And imagine the shock and disappointment when their search returns our blog. Or who searches for ‘physical star jumps’ and is pleased to get pictures of us arseing about on the beach? The person who sought information on ‘gay-friendly Xela’ would have read only about one drunken night we had in a gay bar.

    Surely not what they were looking for.

    What we’ve also noticed is that you’re not just sick, but nosey too. The thing most people want to know about – apart from how we handle not having a toilet in the van – is how much it costs to do a trip like this. A combination of savings, selling all our accumulated stuff before we left and doing some work along the way means we have a budget of a maximum of US$30 each per day (£20). So far – after 229 days on (and off) the road – we’re running at $29 each per day.

    That includes all our petrol, food, accommodation/camping fees, drinks, water, laundry, internet, taxis, tolls, visas, propane, trips and souvenirs and a range of sundries from haircuts to maps, and toilet charges to bug spray.

    Jeremy sampling the wares, cigar-making factory, Esteli

    First the beard, now the cigar-smoking. Jeremy’s Che delusions continue to worsen.

    And yes, I am sad enough to admit that every single one of the above is accounted for, down to the last penny.

    It all adds up to a fraction of the cost of our life in London.

    Statistics alert! Of that budget we have spent around 5% on trips, 17% on petrol, 20% on accommodation, 9% on drinks and water, 0.4% on propane, 0.7% on laundry and 18.5% on meals out.

    So some other conclusions we can draw are, firstly, that we eat too much (and that meals-out figure is down from 22%). That’s no surprise. And, secondly, that we don’t wash our clothes enough (or maybe that having laundry done is very cheap, but that wouldn’t be as amusing).

    Well, as they say around these parts, the adverbial pronoun waits for no man (or woman) so we had better get back to the homework and our dark thoughts of murdering the person(s) who invented grammar.

    Before we do (see how he’s avoided the homework for a bit longer there? – ed), here’s a whistle-stop tour of the past couple of weeks. Bored of waiting for our transmission, we headed to Estelí and enrolled at CENAC Spanish school for a couple of weeks.

    We’ve rented what might loosely be called an apartment. The fact that the walls don’t reach the ceiling is just one of its interesting features. The electrical wires hanging from the shower are another. But, as ever, people’s kindness has been overwhelming, more than making up for any relative discomforts. Our formidable landlady brings us cooked meals and random vegetables on a regular basis. Whilst we really don’t need it, it is much appreciated.

    The rainy season is just beginning and our apartment has a balcony from where we can see the late afternoon storms brewing over the mountains and heading to town, where they unleash themselves in a deafening torrent on our tin roof. The unpaved street turns into a river within minutes, sweeping rubbish and – sometimes, we’re convinced – small children down with it (okay, that was a small exaggeration, but only a small one).

    Swimming in Somoto Canyon, northern Nicaragua

    Floating along in the Somoto Canyon, northern Nicaragua.

    We spent an exhilarating few hours hiking, wading and floating down the Cañon de Somoto last weekend and had a heady trip to a handmade cigar factory – something for which Estelí is famous. This weekend we’re heading up to the Caribbean coast and the reportedly stunning Pearl Lagoon.

    By the time we come back from there we hope to have better news about the van.

    We couldn’t have any more bad luck with this – could we? After ordering the transmission we had it transported overland to the port at New Orleans. But they lost the paperwork and it sat for a week or so at a depot with no-one knowing where it was supposed to go.

    Then, after we hassled, they located it and sent it to the port – by which time it had missed its shipping slot. So they sent it to another port but by the time it got there the container was full and it had to be sent back to the previous port.

    Finally, two weeks late, it supposedly left on Wednesday, and is due to arrive with us in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in the next fortnight or so. But when we got the email from the shipping company, the measurements of the package were significantly different from those we gave them when we booked the shipping.

    So who knows what we will get, or when. I know we’re not supposed to moan because we’re really, really lucky to be doing this, but can I just say all this waiting and uncertainty sucks!

    And the sad thing about all this is that we know the part you will have enjoyed the most was that last bit – where everything goes wrong. Sickos…

    Days: 229
    Miles: Same as before
    Things we now know to be true: There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

    Shipping forecast

    3 May

    Managua, Nicaragua
    [by Paula]

    It’s unbelievable to us that it’s now nearly five weeks since we broke down, and we are still not in possession of a new gearbox.

    But we have bought one, we have seen the pictures to prove its existence, and it is on its way here – apparently. But for financial reasons it is coming here on the slow boat, and that’s just the way it is.

    So we are learning something about the art of zen. Yes, even Jeremy.

    If we are feeling stroppy over yet another delay, we remember we are lucky to be doing this trip in the first place. End of.

    Che placard at May Day rally, Havana, Cuba, 2012

    Cocktails for moi, Che for Jez.

    And recently we have had some rather fabulous distractions from the waiting. After making all the tricky decisions about buying the gearbox and figuring out how to get it here, we scooted down to Nicaragua on the bus, to catch our pre-arranged flights out of the country for separate long weekends – me to New York and Jeremy to Havana.

    Before leaving Managua we were lucky to coincide again with our friends Zach and Jill. As fellow van owners they were able to offer excellent consolation, with the help of a few beers and a good dose of empathy. While a dead gearbox isn’t exactly every road-tripper’s worst nightmare, it’s up there with the mechanical worst-case scenarios. We’ve been grateful for all the messages and advice people have sent us from the road, and from home.

    After a few days of clothes-washing and trying to make ourselves look presentable we headed off to New York/Cuba for two very contrasting weekends.

    For me it was a celebratory four nights in Manhattan with my school girlfriends, to mark our 40th birthdays – involving cocktails, wine, chatting, sightseeing, eating, giggling and… erm, more chatting. For Jeremy, it was a revolutionary weekend in Cuba for May Day – involving proper work, politics, meetings, rallying and, okay, maybe some rum too.

    The four girls in NY

    Rosie, Sharon, Caroline and me – starting our own little revolution in Manhattan.

    I wouldn’t want anyone to make any lasting judgments about what these trips might say about us … but trust Jeremy to trump my girlie lip-glossy weekend with something significant and meaningful!

    Now we are back in Nicaragua and keen to do something useful while we spend the next 2 or 3 weeks waiting for the transmission to arrive by ship from the US to Honduras.

    With all the shenanigans of the last few weeks, our focus on Spanish has really taken a dive. So we’re off back to school on Monday for two weeks, in Esteli, northern Nicaragua.

    Once the gearbox arrives we’ll hot-foot it back to Honduras to rescue the van and get back on the road. We hope.

    Here are some pics from our recent trips:

    Havana, May Day 2012 – on Flickr

    New York – on Flickr

    Days: 213
    Miles: Same as before
    Things we now know to be true: Ships take longer than planes, but they are way cheaper.

    Patience is a virtue?

    18 Apr

    PD, Los Naranjos, Honduras

    Oh, how I’d love to be able to type the words “we’re back on the road!”

    But I’ve never been into writing fiction.

    The fact is we’re still exasperatingly stationary. There has been progress though – achingly slow, but progress.

    The van in position to be pushed onto the truck

    Ready, steady, heave!

    Mentally, we’ve been breaking this down into stages in an attempt to preserve sanity. Upon returning to the van after Easter the first thing we needed to achieve was to get it safely onto the flatbed truck that Elvin – owner of the scrapyard where we were stranded (are you all following this?) – had offered to us.

    Then Elvin had to drive it to a professional mechanic in the city, without it falling off the back of his truck.

    Since our last post we’d changed the plan. A tip from fellow road-tripper James led, bizarrely, to a conversation in a German bar with a Nicaragua-based Austrian mechanic who advised us to take the van to the city of San Pedro Sula (SPS), instead of the capital.
    We found a mechanic online that looked to be capable of the job.

    The day before we left for SPS Elvin called in half the village to help get the van on his truck. It’s a 10 minute job when you have a proper breakdown truck with a ramp system and hydraulics. It’s a three-hour roller-coaster of adrenaline, uncertainty, shouting, heaving and sweating when you don’t.

    We had to get more than 2 tons of metal about 4 or so feet off the ground.

    Elvin brought the truck into a position that would reduce that incline by about half. The guys started building a ramp out of rather flimsy-looking planks of wood. I – at about 1/40th of the weight of the van – walked up one and it bowed in the middle. They packed breeze blocks under the wood to support it.

    A rudimentary pulley system was rigged up to try to haul the van up onto the truck. But it wouldn’t take the weight. Oh well, that’s it then, I thought.

    Van being tied down onto truck

    The whole process became a bit of an event in the village of Las Flores

    But the tenacity of people in places where there are few resources never ceases to amaze us. Unlike at home, there was no one to call and get us out of this.

    So they pushed. With sheer brute force they pushed that 2 tons up the ramp, amid a lot of shouting and giggling. Jeremy was in the van, trying to keep the wheels straight on planks that were not much wider than our tyres.

    My heart was in my mouth. Elvin’s mum Esperanza (Spanish for ‘hope’) kept telling me not to worry, while crossing herself vigorously.

    Miraculously the front wheels made it over the edge of the ramp and onto the truck. But with the back wheels still on the ground, the hardest part was to come. More people came, and they heaved that van towards the truck. Half way up Jeremy started shouting: “The bricks are crumbling, the bricks are crumbling!”. As he was shouting in English, I was the only person that could understand.

    I felt sick at the thought of the van crashing to the ground and being powerless to stop it. Not to mention the fact that several people would have been squashed in the process. But we were past the point of no return. So they just kept rocking and shoving, and that damn van got up there somehow.

    A sizeable crowd had gathered, with some onlookers pulling in on their way home from work to have a gawp. Elvin and colleagues then spend a good while trying to secure the van to the truck with a bunch of rusty chains and some wooden blocks. It had to withstand a 5-hour journey with plenty of potholes and speedbumps.

    Eventually it was deemed sufficiently safe, and Elvin drove the truck into position, ready for our early morning departure. We watched it swaying as he parked. He wondered if we’d like to stay in bed during the journey?! We declined, citing health and safety reasons. Not to mention what the police might make of it if they pulled us over and found two gringos inside the van in their pyjamas (and we were later pulled over).

    Van on the truck

    On our way...

    That night we had no option but to sleep in the van on top of the truck. No late-night toilet trips allowed.

    The journey to SPS was a bit nervy, let’s say. Jeremy’s eyes were glued to the wing mirror, through which he could see the van bouncing around. Elvin was careful though, and stopped several times to secure the chains.

    Just because we were being driven by a local didn’t save us from getting lost in the city. Oh no. Round and round we went for about an hour or so, asking directions and being told something different each time. Eventually we found the mechanic, which had moved locations without telling us. We pulled in, and were hugely relieved to see the place looked hi-tech and professional. The boss came out and asked us what the problem was. He was speaking in perfect English. I could have fallen to the floor and kissed it.

    After discussing it and agreeing to leave the van there, we gestured out the window and asked him how he proposed to get the van off the truck. “I don’t know, he said. You got it up there.”
    In a phonecall it was sorted. We hired a proper breakdown truck which came and removed the van in 10 minutes. Elvin and his assistant Freddy looked on smiling. Easy as that, eh?!

    We had several days waiting in SPS for the diagnosis which, when it came, confirmed that the transmission was beyond repair. We set the wheels in motion to order a re-conditioned one from our VW dealer in California.

    Hanging around in SPS was tedious, mostly because it is an extremely dangerous place and we felt trapped in the hotel and soulless surrounding streets for most of the day, and definitely at night. Even our B&B owner told us: “This isn’t the kind of place people stay unless they are, you know, in trouble – like you.”

    Typical Central American breakfast

    And just so this post isn't all about vans, here's a typical Central American breakfast. Best meal of the day.

    So what now? We have retreated to a much nicer location about 2 hours from the city – a hostel and microbrewery close to Lago de Yojoa which has beautiful tropical gardens and lots of walking options around.
    From here we are navigating the endless emails, questions and decisions that are involved in trying to locate, order and ship a rare part like this. Just when we thought we were getting somewhere it turned out the transmission we thought was coming to us was incompatible with our van.

    This is still going to take a lot more time. And just to complicate things further we were supposed to be in Nicaragua by next week, to catch some long-booked flights out for a few days of work and friends. It’ll happen, but we’ll be catching the bus over the border and leaving the van behind.

    We won’t bore you with any more of the details. But let’s hope that by the next time we post there is a big hunk of metal called a gearbox winging or sailing its way towards us.

    For now, here are some pics from the road in El Salvador: Click here for El Salvador part one on Flickr

    Days: 198
    Miles: Same as before
    Things we now know to be true: Patience might be a virtue, but persistence is more useful.


    5 Apr

    PD, Copan Ruinas, Honduras

    The van has broken down and we are stranded in the middle of nowhere in Honduras. At the moment it seems like our mechanical problem might be fairly catastrophic, not to mention financially tear-inducing. There’s no way to sugar-coat that or make it funny – not at the moment anyway. These things usually have a way of becoming humorous with hindsight, and we really hope this time will be no different.

    But for the last few days we have been miserable buggers.

    It looks like our automatic transmission, or gearbox, might be a goner. In our last post we were primarily worried about our brakes, but we did have another nagging doubt about the gears too. Several mechanics told us recently that the gears were fine, and we believed them.

    Stranded van at the scrapyard

    At least our stranded van isn't in as bad a state as the one in the foreground

    On Saturday, one day after crossing into Honduras from El Salvador, we were driving past the outskirts of a small village when we started to lose power, and then everything just stopped. Rev, rev, nothing. Someone helped push the van off the road, and Jeremy went to talk to a nearby mechanic.

    We waited in the searing heat for him to come and have a look. Meanwhile the bloke who owned the car wash/scrapyard across the road came to see what was going on. Little did we know then that we’d end up living in that scrapyard for the next four days.

    The van was pushed over to the scrapyard and onto a steep concrete ramp. The mechanic looked underneath and declared that the transmission was broken, we needed a new one, and that there was no chance of getting it in Honduras.

    It was a proper ‘oh shit’, head-in-hands moment. We gaped while the gathering crowd of men kept reminding us how completely stuffed we were, lest we had not understood the first time.

    If we’d had to choose a Central American country to get stranded in, Honduras would have been bottom of the list. If we’d had to choose a time to break down, it would not have been Saturday night, on the weekend just before the biggest week-long holiday in Latin America, Semana Santa (Easter). It did not help that we were hours from a decent-sized town or city. And while our Spanish is improving, it is not quite up to this kind of complication.

    It was obvious that we were going to be in this situation for quite some time. We resolved to get the van back off the ramp, push it into the corner and set up ‘camp’ for the night.

    But a more immediate problem presented itself. The wheels were completely locked, and the van would not roll backwards off the ramp. Everyone heaved and heaved until I thought something would snap. Nada.

    “We climbed inside and drank a lot of rum”.

    One of the men asked where we’d been planning to stay – a hotel in another town, perhaps? I pointed to the top of the ramp, where the van was hanging at a 45-degree angle, and said in a shrill voice that we lived there. It needed to come down or we’d have nowhere to go.

    They worked on it for nearly two hours, until after dark, struggling to remove the wheel joints so it would roll back. We cringed as they whacked at the underside of the wheels with a hammer. At last, it worked, and they pushed our poor stricken van back down onto the ground.

    We climbed inside and drank a lot of rum.

    For the next three days we nearly sent ourselves mad, trying to think of the best way out. I don’t mind admitting we were a bit frightened and out of our depth. We didn’t, and still don’t, know what to do for the best.

    We only had the opinion of a village mechanic. But where else could we take the van and how would we get it there? What parts did we need and where, and how, could we get them?

    Scrapyard guard dog Molly

    The scrapyard's guard dog Molly is a sucker for some cooked liver

    Everything was made worse by the fact that we were living in the scrapyard, on the junction of the main road and the thoroughfare to the village. We had no privacy and, despite reassurances, we couldn’t be sure we were safe. We bribed the dog, Molly, with meat and she obligingly guarded the van.

    Remarkably the village, which barely has anything in it, does have an internet cafe. We searched online for VW mechanics and parts in Honduras, but kept coming up blank. There appeared to be a mechanic in the capital city Tegucigalpa, but we knew nothing about him and it was a nine-hour drive away. A crazy idea? For something this potentially serious do we need a VW expert, or would a local gearbox-fixer be enough?

    There have been mercifully few moments like this. We’d expected to occasionally think: ‘Why? Why was it that I gave up my comfortable, relatively privileged, cosy existence for an unpredictable life on the road?’. I’ll admit that there was probably at least one day this week when I had that thought.

    But, as always on this trip, we have found people to be unbelievably helpful, trusting and generous towards us, and we are so thankful for that.

    The scrapyard/car wash owner, Elvin, and his family more or less adopted us. Our van has been in residence at their business for several days. They offered to wash our clothes and let us shower in their home. The couple who own a little cafe next door gave us the key to it every night so we could use the toilet.

    Elvin and family

    Elvin and his family have been looking out for us

    And the people at the VW dealer who sold us our van in California, Pop Top Heaven, are trying to help us in any way they can with advice and, if it comes to it, spare parts.

    Elvin tried making several phonecalls for us, including to the VW mechanic in Tegucigalpa. After much discussion he offered to take the van there on his truck. It seems an extreme solution, but we have decided to do it.

    Just one thing though, he said. There’s no point in doing anything until after Semana Santa because no one will be working. It meant killing a whole week. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? From where we were standing it felt like an eternity. But we had no choice.

    We decided to take off on the bus for a few days, to sit it out until the holiday is over. We have come to Copan Ruinas, the site of Honduras’s major ruined Mayan city and a lovely little town. When we return to the scrapyard on Monday, Elvin will gather several guys together to help haul our van onto his truck. At dawn on Tuesday we will set off for Tegucigapla.

    As we left their place I told Elvin’s mother I was dreading the process of getting the van up onto the truck. I said I would have bad dreams about it falling off.

    She took my arm, looked up to the sky, crossed herself, and said God would take care of it.

    Not wanting to appear ungrateful, I thanked her. But what I really wanted to say was – Easter or not, could we just forget about the prayers and focus on getting a really really strong piece of rope?

    Days: 185
    Miles: Erm, not sure
    Things we now know to be true: A car’s not just a car when it’s your house as well