Tag Archives: Costa Rica

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

4 Apr

Paula watching sunset

By Paula
[April 2016]

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now – sometimes long-term travel is a bit hard. Because it’s a privilege to be able to travel for pleasure, it can be awkward to admit that. But there, I’ve said it.

But whatever down sides there are to living a nomadic life on the road, for us they were massively outweighed by the good stuff. If that wasn’t the case, we simply wouldn’t have kept going for nearly 1,600 days.

Like just about everything else in life, if it’s what you passionately want to do, you’ll take the rough with the smooth.  Via this blog we have been able to share so many incredible, unforgettable moments, and we thank you all again for coming along. We find it hard to absorb the sheer saturating volume of amazingness we’ve been lucky enough to experience, and the thought of trying to sum that up in this post is mind-boggling.

We hope you agree that we have also been truthful about the bad times, the irritations and the frustrations. We can’t stand shiny, shouty, dishonest travel blogging that makes out every single moment is a profoundly life-changing ‘awesome blast’, or that travelling is in some way superior to other lifestyles. The awesomeness is indeed present in an infinite number of big and small ways, and giving up a secure life to undertake a trip like this is inevitably life-altering, but let’s keep things in perspective please.

We get a lot of questions about why we did this, what’s great and what’s difficult – the thing is the answer can change depending on the day, the mood, the weather, the circumstances, the people. Sometimes a ‘bad’ thing leads to something fabulous. Some days you’re doing something fabulous and can still manage to be in a foul mood. Some of the best things are the hardest to convey because they are fleeting, silly moments that get lost in translation.

In this post, some of the good and bad things will literally overlap. How can we blather on about loving the freedom to be on the move, then bemoan the bad things about always being transient? Because we are all a bag of contradictions.

With our return home we’ve tried to focus our minds on the things we most treasured and the things we won’t miss so much.

They are those consistent themes that, for us, represent the truly Good, the Bad and the Ugly about our totally perfectly awesome blast of a drive to the bottom of the world.

[This is a huge blog post. If it helps, you can flick between the items you want to read from the list of clickable links below. But if you skip straight past all the ‘good’ stuff and go straight to the ‘bad & ugly’, please know that this makes you a terrible person.]

 


 

THE GOOD

1. Freedom

2. Being outside

3. Gazing at wildlife

4. Scoffing food

5. Feeling the ‘wow’ factor

6. Triumphing over adversity

7. Enjoying random surprises

8. Meeting people

 

THE BAD & THE UGLY

1. The toilet situation

2. The “f****ing wifi”

3. The vehicle maintenance

4. The lack of privacy

5. The transience

 


 

THE GOOD

1. FREEDOM

Long road, Patagonia, Argentina

Just me, him, a flask of tea and the road ahead.

This is the only word that comes close to summing up all that is good about a long road trip with a campervan. People so often ask what’s the best thing about the trip and, while we could list a gazillion cool things we’ve seen and done, it’s this.

Within reason, we could get up in the morning and go wherever we liked, and frequently changed our minds on the way. We didn’t have to get up and trudge to work. We didn’t have to plan much and almost never had to make reservations for anything.

Whenever we ‘arrived’ our house was there with us, so whatever was happening we had that little bubble that was all ours. No matter where we ended up, we could make a drink, cook some food and go to our own bed. If we didn’t like a place, we drove off. If we loved it, we stayed longer. If it rained we tried to head for the sun. If it was too sunny, we parked under a tree.

We had more time together than we could ever have hoped for in our previous life, which was one of the major things we’d craved before the trip. We found that to be strengthening, nourishing and fun.

It’s a massive privilege to have freedom and time – we never stopped appreciating that. We were almost always occupied with something or other because we still enjoy being busy, but we also had the headspace to read, talk, think and sleep more.

It took a while after we left London, but we learned to sometimes just be quiet and still, even bored. I know it’s stating the bleeding obvious, but that is seriously good for you.

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2. BEING OUTSIDE

Early cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

Early morning cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

If you live the camping life for several years then, guess what, the majority of your time is spent outside in the sunshine and fresh air. We will miss this enormously because it made us feel healthier and improved our sleep quality.

When the weather was cold or wet we really loved having the option of slamming the van door and having a cosy indoor option. But for the most part the climate was great and we did most things outside whenever possible – reading, eating meals, barbequing, washing up, having a drink, fixing stuff, looking at the views and sunsets, swimming, hiking, people-watching, spotting birds and animals and wasting countless hours chasing them around with the camera, often to no avail.

In the mountains and national parks we loved heading off with some snacks for a good long stroll or a strenuous hike. If we were heading out on a particularly tough or long trek, we’d leave the bed out in the morning so we could come home and crawl straight in there afterwards with a reviving cup of tea. Bliss.

In the high altitude areas the light is particularly crisp, bright and unsullied – it truly is nectar for the soul. If only we could store it up for the grey days.

There were several phases of the trip when we did a lot of beach camping – especially Central America, Colombia’s Caribbean coast, northern Peru and southern Brazil. There’s nothing quite like sleeping to the sound of waves, waking up with the early sun, pushing back the door and stepping straight out onto the sand.

Some of our most precious memories are from camping on the beaches of Baja California in Mexico, back in 2011. Stingrays, leaping dolphins and massive azure skies that had to be seen to be believed. There are few better introductions to a life lived outdoors.

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3. GAZING AT WILDLIFE

Blue-footed booby, Ecuador

What you looking at? Blue-footed booby, Ecuador

We began our married life with an African safari and have always had a thing about any kind of wildlife. Even so, I don’t think we realised quite how geeky we were about it until this trip. We loved spotting the big mammals and exciting colourful birds but would also happily spend hours watching hermit crabs or leafcutter ants.

I started making a list of some of the main wildlife we saw on the trip, but it became ridiculously unwieldy.

So here are just a few of our favourite things:

– Swimming with sea lions in Baja California, Mexico, then snorkelling over a shoal of grouper fish that was so immense it gave us vertigo;
– Walking among blue-footed boobies in Ecuador. There is nothing not to like about a wide-eyed bird in bright blue flippers;
– Getting a good long look at a snoozing puma in the rainforest in Costa Rica.
– Watching Rockhopper penguins bounce around on the rocks in Patagonia. Boing!! (In fact, everything about penguins. Magellanics, Kings, Humboldts, whatever – our enthusiasm does not discriminate);
– Slowing down to allow a family of alpacas to cross the road in Peru;
– Spotting a lovely luminous yellow eyelash viper in Costa Rica, photographing it at close range, then later finding out it was a very dangerous, potentially deadly, snake.
– Looking on as herds of capybaras bathed in mud and water pools, in both Colombia and Argentina.
– Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys! So many monkeys. That is all.
– Managing to look up just in time to see, and photograph, a humpback whale leaping out of the ocean in Ecuador.
– Getting an up-close visit from a three-week old baby sea-lion in Chilean Patagonia. The little chap almost managed to upstage the King penguins we’d gone there to visit.
– Being happy to get a cricked neck from watching condors soar in the Argentinian lakes district.
– Standing on a cliff in the Bolivian Amazon, watching macaws flying beneath us in to their rocky nests. (actually, Jeremy hated the scary cliff, but he really enjoyed the parrots!)

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4. SCOFFING FOOD

Anticuchos (cow heart skewers), La Paz

Buying anticuchos (cow heart skewers) in La Paz, Bolivia – served with potato and delicious spicy peanut sauce.

In most parts of the world food is an integral part of the culture that’s all bound up with family, identity, history, the environment and climate, the marking of life’s milestones and more. To travel without an open-minded love of food must surely be a joyless affair.

Luckily we take no persuasion to sample whatever’s on offer, wherever we go. The less familiar the better – roasted guinea pig (Ecuador and Peru), beef heart skewers (Bolivia), fried fat-bottomed ants (Colombia), lamb testicles (Bolivia), llama and alpaca steaks (Peru, Bolivia, northern Argentina) being among the more memorable moments.

Filet mignon with fried ants, Barichara

Getting ready to pop a crunchy fried ant into my mouth, Barichara, Colombia.

On a self-catering trip, plenty of meals are typically everyday concoctions – often the same as, or a variation of, things we’d eat at home. But as much as possible we’d seek out less familiar ingredients to cook with, or try a local twist to what we were making.

But eating out really gave us the chance to delve into the local flavours. For the most part that involved street food and cheap, substantial, set lunches which are usually the main meal of the day in Latin America. Occasionally we’d eat out in the evening, and a few times we splurged on a properly posh gourmet meal.

Everywhere we went, the local cuisine was an enormous source of pride and competitiveness between regions and nations. Food was talked about incessantly and we were happy to join in.

We were asked countless times how we were enjoying the food, what was our favourite thing, which country had the most tempting dishes. Be it on your own head if you don’t compliment the place you’re in at that moment.

Often the street snacks were the best. To name them all would take an entire book. We still salivate over thoughts of papas rellenas (stuffed potato) in Peru, arepas (corn cakes) with egg or cheese in Colombia, tamales (steamed, stuffed corn dough) in Central America, Mexican tacos of every variety, tajadas (crispy fried plantain chips) in Nicaragua and dreamy deep-fried coxhinas de frango (chicken fritters, sometimes with melty cheese) in Brazil. Just about everywhere has a version of an empanada (fried or baked, filled pastry pies) but Bolivia wins for its version, the salteña – biting through the crumbly pastry to find a juicy meat gravy inside requires it to be eaten standing up, leaning forward, legs apart.

For us the overall winners are Mexico and Peru for the best cuisine in terms of flavour, imagination, freshness and variety, and Argentina for being fabulous at the more limited things it specialises in, including steak, milanesas, chorizo and dulce de leche (caramel) with everything. Just don’t tell our friends in Bolivia that they didn’t make the cut…

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5. FEELING THE ‘WOW’ FACTOR

P&J, Fitz Roy mirador

Glorious views of the Fitz Roy range on our hike to Laguna de Los Tres, near El Chalten, Argentina.

The biggest ‘wow’ moments in travel aren’t restricted to the classic ‘must-sees’ and, in any case, everyone’s got their own tastes about what wows them and what leaves them cold. We can get ridiculously excited about something quite obscure or prosaic, but we are equally happy to be carried along with the hype of the massive sites like Macchu Picchu or Iguazu Falls.

I gave those two examples, because they are perhaps the most touristed destinations in South America, and we still loved them. Some travellers consider it a badge of honour to snub the ‘touristy’ places – erroneously believing themselves to be something other than tourists and preferring to deny themselves the pleasure of seeing a cultural or natural wonder because it’s ‘too busy / expensive / predictable’. We don’t feel that way. Yes, we always try to avoid the busiest times, we pack our own lunch, we loathe it when places have been thoroughly wrecked by tourism, and we sidestep the avoidable rip-offs. But most of those places are well known for a good reason, and sometimes you just have to embrace it.

A fair number of our wow moments fall into that busy ‘touristy’ category, some less so, and some we practically had to ourselves. There are others that couldn’t really be photographed well, like the mind-popping stargazing we did in the Atacama desert (Chile) and Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia).

Our little brainstorming session for this section could have lasted for days, had we let the list go on and on and on. Look down for an agonisingly small selection of some of the best big breath-takers.

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6. TRIUMPHING OVER ADVERSITY

Arriving in Ushuaia!

14 Jan 2015: Arriving in Ushuaia. Only about a year ‘late’ – not too shabby!

I sometimes think that people who love adventurous travel are a little bit addicted to the highs and lows that inevitably come with it. If you take on a long trip, especially with a vehicle, the chances of absolutely everything going 100% A-Ok smoothly are practically nil. You have to deal with some shitty and annoying stuff or, worse, some scary and risky stuff.

It doesn’t always feel like it at the time, but – as long as we are still alive and more or less un-maimed  – I think we secretly kind of like it that way.

Because getting yourselves out of an adverse situation or solving a new tricky conundrum is like a drug. Those massive lows make the highs all the more exhilarating.

The great thing is, it doesn’t even have to be anything particularly major or frightening. It’s not necessarily ‘adversity’, in the context of some of the things people have to live through in today’s world, but it just has to feel like a challenge for you.

It wasn’t unusual to see us fist-pumping the air because a hot, sweaty, sweary, confusing, seemingly hopeless day of looking for a propane gas plant had actually ended with success – ie with a full tank of propane gas.

We’d celebrate with a drink and dinner that night as if we’d just managed to scale Everest in flip-flops.

Even taking on a trek we found difficult, pushing ourselves just a bit further than we were comfortable with, was something that would put us on a high. This was especially the case for Jeremy, who suffers from terrible vertigo and frequently had to push himself out of his comfort zone. One of the hardest walks didn’t even involve any altitude – it was a blindingly hot beach trek into the Costa Rican rainforest, during which Jeremy became a bit delirious, I briefly thought about lying down and dying, and we had to wade waist-high through a river not entirely unvisited by crocodiles. Arriving was utter bliss.

Paula at customs office, Quito

Waiting for yet another customs office to help us.

Navigating our way through some of the bureaucratic mazes we found ourselves in ended in a similar self-congratulatory mood. We have particularly vivid memories of being horribly lost in Bogota, Colombia, being (unnecessarily) sent here, there and everywhere, trying to renew our visas and vehicle permit. This is not a city you want to drive in. Ever. It’s the only day I can remember us actually both crying whilst driving, but we genuinely laughed about it later.

Three months later we had to do the same visa run again, but in an easier provincial city in the south. We were so chuffed we’d got it all done, but by that time we were running late to get to a rural ranch (see Good things no.7: Enjoying Random Surprises), before dark. It was a part of Colombia that was only just opening up after being a dangerous no-go area for years. All we had was a scribbled map, a name and no phone or GPS. As we rushed to find our way out of town we did an illegal u-turn and hit a motorcyclist. When the police arrived it turned out one of the officers was the uncle of the woman we’d knocked over. We really thought we’d had it that day. But we got away with it – we miraculously found the un-signed ranch in the pitch black, we ate grilled trout for dinner, drank a lot of cold beer and sank into our beds that night feeling like we’d just lived a whole week in one day.

Then of course there was the van. There were periods when we felt like we were triumphing over adversity every other day. (See Bad things no.3: The Vehicle Maintenance). We wouldn’t have wished for all those things to happen, and life would have been easier if they hadn’t, but solving them did lead to a great sense of satisfaction. By far the ultimate challenge was smuggling the van out of Ecuador after we’d converted the gearbox – it involved months of planning, discussion and research, a lot of sleepless nights, some dodgy behaviour and quite a lot of nerve.

After it was over and we’d made it to Peru, we drank loads of cocktails, grinned a lot and danced a little. And for the zillionth time on the trip we said: “We can’t believe we just did that”.

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7. ENJOYING RANDOM SURPRISES

No, we hadn't anticipated dancing in public, dressed like this.

No, we hadn’t anticipated dancing in public, dressed like this.

When a plan comes together it’s lovely, but when something unexpected happens it somehow makes things all the more thrilling.

Travelling long-term gives you the freedom to follow the curve balls that come along. So many little unplanned events happened to us along the way, it’s hard to remember absolutely everything. But there are a few moments that really stick in our minds.

Finding ourselves with a van full of El Salvadorean revolutionaries: As we bumped along a dirt track in the van in the El Perquin region, we looked behind from the front to see three ex-guerilla fighters sitting on our seats and floor. We gave each other that familiar look that says ‘jeez, our life is strange sometimes’. We’d booked an informal guided tour of sites that were significant to the rebels during El Salvador’s brutal civil war, but we hadn’t really expected that we’d be the transport. Each time we moved on to the next place our guide would ask us to pull over and pick up yet another random revolutionary – each with a story of the war that was at once fascinating, horrific and inspiring.

Jeremy getting drunk with a bunch of Colombian gauchos in the relatively unexplored Los Llanos region – then me driving all of them, their wives and kids home in the van, via a stop-off for sausage and chips. We’d met a guy at a mechanic’s in Bogota, who invited us to stay at his ranch for a few days and be looked after by the families who lived and worked on the farm. Horse-riding, wildlife-spotting, fire-roasted beef and a taste of the cowboy life – it was one of the most special experiences of our whole trip.

Camping in someone’s living room in Colombia: It doesn’t get much weirder than parking up next to a stranger’s sofa, popping the pop-top and pouring yourself an evening drink. While looking for somewhere to camp in Espinal, we’d asked at a local sports club if we could stay in their grounds. They refused, but a local tennis instructor overheard the conversation and told us we were welcome to camp at his place. Obviously we assumed he had a garden, but when we arrived at his house it was in the middle of the town square! ‘Erm, we actually need someone to park because we sleep inside the van’ we explained. ‘That’s okay’ he said, ‘you can park inside the house….’ He pulled back the gates and we drove into his bizarrely laid-out home, with a covered courtyard that had been made into a living room. We squeezed the van in next to the sofa and settled in for the night.
This entry only just beats the night we ended a horrendously stressful day by being ‘rescued’ by a wealthy Colombian family who allowed us to camp in their garden, amid preparations for a massive posh 50th birthday party.

Dancing in a Bolivian folk festival: Of all the things we couldn’t have foreseen, this probably takes the prize. Few people in this world could persuade Jeremy to don flappy Andean trousers, a poncho and an outrageously camp hat, then dance through the streets waving pink hankies and jangling the spurs on his sandals-with-socks. But our Workaway hosts Emma and Rolando managed just that. I wasn’t doing too badly either, with my woolly dress, pinny and wide-brimmed sombrero flowing with multi-coloured ribbons. During our fabulous four-month stint doing a work-exchange at Colibri Camping near La Paz – which was another unexpected turn of events in itself – we really loved being part of a small community. And part of that involvement included joining the team that competes in their annual dance festival. We’re only sorry our lamentable efforts failed to secure them a victory.

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8. MEETING PEOPLE

Panama

From fleeting interactions, to random acts of kindness by strangers, to making new and enduring friendships, people bind together the fragmented life one lives as a nomad.

There are the countless people whose names we’ll never know, but who made a difference to us in the moment – all the people who spotted our foreign van and waved or approached us to chat or offer help; the people in exceptionally friendly Colombia who invited us in to their homes; the folk who gave us, or helped us find, a safe place to sleep; strangers who gave us little gifts of food or souvenirs; the guys who rescued us when our (first) gearbox gave out in rural Honduras.

We meet dozens of other road-trippers and shared brief conversations, meals and wine, or several days of companionship. Some we met – by chance or design – several times over, while others we convoyed or lived with for a spell.

Our journalism jobs meant we were lucky to be able to meet some fascinating people for the stories we were writing – including ex-guerilla fighters, Bolivian cholitas, journalists under threat and social justice campaigners.

Family and friends visited, giving us a welcome glimpse of home and the chance to spend more time with them than we ever seemed to be able to afford when we lived thousands of miles closer.

Then there were the family members, friends, fellow travellers and strangers from more than 150 countries who followed the blog and often sent us encouraging and complimentary messages. We couldn’t see you but we felt like you were with us.

Stand by for the biggest gallery of all:

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THE BAD & THE UGLY

 

1. THE TOILET SITUATION

Toilet, Peru

Whose turn was it to clean the toilet?

Unsavoury toilet situations are possibly the ugliest part of travelling in such a way that you’re almost always conducting your functions and ablutions in either a public/shared facility, behind a bush or hunched over a bottle inside the car.

We’re not saying all toilets in Latin America are awful, obviously that would be ridiculous, but when you are camping you see a disproportionate number of the nasties. Only a few places have bathrooms that you’d really consider lingering in for longer than strictly necessary. We chose to drive a smaller vehicle without a toilet and that was the right decision for us, but there’s a price that comes with it – a lack of privacy and having to endure other people’s habits, noises, smells, excretions, skin flakes and hair.

The porta-loo we bought at the beginning of the trip was ditched after a year as it was so impractical, and there was a diarrhoea incident in Guatemala that left us both mentally scarred for life. So apart from our magic Uriwell emergency pee bottle, we totally relied on external solutions.

Having to wash or go to the toilet in the great outdoors was the least of our worries – it’s often way more appealing than the indoor option.

In those moments where you’re brushing your teeth over a dirt-caked sink and trying not to touch anything, stepping into a shower covered in leaves, mud, insects (dead and alive) and scum-clogged balls of other people’s hair, trying to avoid inhaling as you hover over a shit-smeared toilet at a truck stop, desperately trying to avoid the pool of rancid urine under your flip-flopped feet, or trying not to look at the bin overflowing with a week’s worth of soiled toilet paper, you do have a little droll thought to yourself: “Yep, living the dream baby, livin’ the dream.”

Those nights when we woke up needing to pee and first had to sleepily remember where the hell we were, then schlep outside to face the elements, the barking dogs, the passersby, whatever, we might have fleetingly wondered why we do this to ourselves.

We do wish we had more photos of the worst toilet examples, but it’s never really a classic Kodak moment. Most are not really extreme – there’s just a fairly regular pattern of poorly-maintained facilities that make the whole experience feel a bit shabby – non-functioning flushes, lack of running water, broken and missing toilet seats, broken or non-existent doors, shredded stained shower curtains that always want to stick to your skin, smashed mirrors, broken lights, and crumbling, mouldy walls.

Electrifying shower, Nicaragua.

Electrifying shower, Nicaragua.

In Central America and Brazil they have electric showers that usually have bare wires hanging from them – if you absent-mindedly raise your arms and touch the shower head, bbzzzzzzt! It certainly helps wake you up in the morning.

There were many periods of the trip when we just didn’t know when or where we would next find a shower. Mostly that’s fine, you get used to it and improvise as best you can. But some days you want to claw out your entire head of stinking, greasy hair.

Toilet reports are a regular topic of conversation, and plenty are great! When we found one that was clean and shiny, well lit, with running water, doors that lock, toilet seats, paper AND soap, it made our bloody day.

Sometimes it was a little bit extreme though. There was the time when I had to go to a drop toilet in the Peruvian Andes, and there was a dead cow in the next cubicle. There was the time that the only available toilet in Cabo de la Vela, Colombia, was so appalling that (sorry dear reader) we resorted to defecating in a plastic bag in the van. One day we met retired Kiwis Gary and Joan, in Patagonia. We were discussing our reasons for not having stayed at the other campsite in town. “We did actually go there and set up camp, but we left almost immediately,” said Gary.

Why was that?” we asked. “Well, Joan went in to the toilet block and someone had crapped in the shower.”

 

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2. THE F***ING WIFI

Paula using laptop

See how unhappy and frustrated I look?

I know it’s not classy or intelligent to swear, but “the fucking wifi!” was one of the most commonly uttered phrases of our trip and I really can’t dress it up as something more polite.

If you imagine that we spent absolutely all of our days skipping through the mountains, sitting by rivers enjoying picnics, or frolicking in the sea, then you might wonder why on earth the internet was so important to us.

Well we didn’t, and it was.

Not every day, thankfully – we really came to appreciate the benefits of having so many days where we had no access, or chose not to access it. It’s good for your health and your relationship.

But when we needed it and it was either hard to find, didn’t not work or was woefully inadequate for the task, this was usually a head-bangingly frustrating waste of time, effort and money. For various reasons we chose not to bring smartphones and buy SIM cards and internet plans for each country, so we completely relied on free wifi in cafes, petrol stations, campsites and public areas, or on using internet shops with desktop computers.

We rented a few apartments and they always had wifi. On our two work-exchange stints in Bolivia and Argentina there was wifi in our accommodation but it was abysmal because the areas were rural.

Sometimes the internet speed was excellent, but you could never really predict when that was going to be – one of our most surprisingly clear Skype calls home was from a public square on an island off the Chilean island of Chiloe.

Plenty of tasks could be, and often were, put off for days or weeks with little consequence – blogging, uploading photos, researching stuff for the trip, reading the news or downloading podcasts. Other things were more important – our freelance journalism work, Skyping the parents, keeping in touch with home, and money matters.

We tended to try to plan the days when we’d go online and get our tasks done – that usually meant packing up the van and driving somewhere to do it, or fitting it in between destination A and B.

The day you’ve planned it will typically be the day when you can’t find a functioning wifi signal. How many damn coffees have we ordered before realising the wifi doesn’t work? (rookie mistake). How many free municipal ‘services’ have we connected to, only to find Nothing At All will load? How many towns have we driven round, hanging the iPad out of the window to try to find an open network? How many hours have we spent watching that spinning wheel as we try to upload photos for the blog or – even worse – for our editors? And, for the love of whatthefuck, how many times have we tried to speak to our parents on Skype and had to run around a campsite, town square or café, trying to locate a signal that will facilitate, you know, an actual conversation.

Am I starting to sound bitter? Well the answer is, a lot! A lot of hours, a lot of times.

But we’re so over it.

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3. THE VEHICLE MAINTENANCE

Van on the truck, Honduras

Please don’t leave, come back..! The first transmission breakdown in Honduras.

For some people, tinkering with a car or tackling a really difficult mechanical conundrum is a deeply satisfying hobby, a pleasure, even a joy. For us it was the steepest learning curve of the journey, and it was often stressful.

We will probably never be mechanics. Let me rephrase that – we will never be mechanics. But we now know the names of more car parts in Spanish than we will ever know in English. We now kind of vaguely know what’s going on under there. We became finely tuned to the van’s little ways and noises and gradually stopped completely dreading conversations with mechanics.

If you’re wondering what the level of our knowledge was when we left home in 2011, let me just say that until 6 months before our departure date Jeremy couldn’t even drive, and neither of us had ever owned a car.

My dad tried to give me a cramming lesson in very basic vehicle maintenance just before we left. My blank facial expressions gave him understandable cause for alarm and his face went a bit white. I was quietly thinking ‘oh wow, I didn’t know there was fluid for the brakes’ while he was quietly thinking ‘oh god, they are definitely going to die in a desert somewhere’.

Broken down in Ecuador

Broken down in Ecuador

If you have followed this blog long term you will know that for the first half of the trip we had an absolute nightmare with the van’s automatic transmission, which failed twice and was eventually converted to a manual gearbox in Ecuador. Trying to get our heads around solving those potentially journey-ending problems was, at times, overwhelming.

That breakdown let to a horrendous cycle of bureaucratic problems that ended with us risking everything to smuggle the van out of the country. It was, by far, the most stressful, pant-wettingly scary thing we had to do on the whole journey.

Big catastrophes aside, the day-to-day maintenance of a vehicle that is also your home just adds an extra layer of pressure. There’s more at stake. Problems cannot be ignored, they have to be dealt with asap and always in a place that you don’t know. Once you do find a mechanic you don’t know if he’s going to be competent. Sometimes they break the very thing they are supposed to be fixing, or fix one thing and break something else just to keep you on your toes. Sometimes they are excellent – it is a lottery every time.

When we needed work done we couldn’t just leave the van and go home. Our home was there, suspended in the air on a hydraulic lift or jacked up with its wheels off. We didn’t even have a cell phone. We had to wander the streets, sit in cafes, or in the yard just waiting, waiting, waiting.

It was difficult to explain the concept to mechanics who didn’t often get people driving their houses into the workshop.

They were frequent conversations like this – mechanic says: “So how long are you in town?” We’d say: “Weeeeell, as long as this takes. We can’t leave until the van is fixed, because we live in it. So basically we’re waiting for you to do this as quickly as possible (subtext – but not so quickly that you cock it up by rushing it).”

Mechanic says: “Okay leave it with us and we’ll let you know.”

We’d say: “And go where? We live in the van. Just to reiterate – we are waiting until you give us our house back because we have nowhere else to go.”

It was tedious. Sometimes we waited all day then bailed out at closing time, having to get things reassembled in order to go off and camp, or abandoning the van to go to a hostel – the work uncompleted, the part untraceable or undelivered.

Mechanic looks at the brakes, Perquin

Another day, another mechanic

Oh yeah, car parts. That’s the other little thing. We couldn’t always find the ones we needed in Latin America and they had to be shipped from the US or Europe (such as a whole transmission – twice). More expense, more long waits. After a while we got wise to the things we might need, bringing things from the UK, or having other stuff shipped while we were ordering something else. We tried to stay one step ahead and largely it all worked out well in the latter two years.

Of course we knew looking after a vehicle would be pretty much the biggest occupational hazard of going on a 50,000-odd mile road trip, but we probably didn’t envisage just quite how consuming it could be at times. We don’t mind saying that we’re proud we not only made it, but learned a hell of a lot along the way.

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4. THE LACK OF PRIVACY

Wayuu woman and baby in our van

People quite often wanted to be photographed with the van.

This is quite a tricky one to describe, because many genuinely good things came out of the fact that we lived much of our van life effectively in the public sphere. By being out there on display, we met countless interesting, helpful, amusing, curious, friendly people.

When you are camping in a small van, unless the weather is totally freezing or you are asleep, the door is pretty much always open and everything you are doing is visible to whoever happens to be around. That varied hugely depending on where we were camping – from quiet bush camps free of anyone, to privately-owned campsites, to petrol stations, village squares, restaurant car parks, tourist sites or beaches.

The vast majority of the time it was great. We had some of the best interactions of this trip precisely because people could, and did, approach us to have a look around and a chat about the journey. We were videoed, photographed and questioned more times than we could count. Children were obsessed with the pop-top and always wanted to climb in it. Sometimes people would hang around to watch us from a distance, to see what the strange gringos would do next. We could actually hear them giving a running commentary to each other.

Occasionally we did feel self-conscious about it – more so in the countries where camping and motorhomes were much less common. If you’re frying up some chicken inside your car or trying to relax with a glass of wine in a village square in rural Bolivia, people will understandably stare at you and you might not always be in the mood for it. We had a classic comedy moment quite recently when a young boy was strolling past, gazing open-mouthed at the van’s pop-top. As he lifted his hand to wave at us he walked face-on into a lamppost. Oh how we all chuckled!

There are those days when you feel hot and sweaty, grumpy, or a bit stressed because you can’t find somewhere decent to camp, and being on public display is just not what you want. Those days are a small minority, but they really matter in that moment. If you’re hormonal, knackered, feeling a bit meh or just need to wallow with a ‘duvet day’ it’s harder to hide unless you happen to be in the middle of nowhere, or can find a peaceful private campground in which to relax and be alone.

Talking of being alone, as a couple we were pretty much always together. This is one of those overlapping good and bad things. Given our previous life, being able to spend so much time together has been one of the top-ranking good things about this trip. But we also appreciate that it’s not entirely normal to have virtually zero time away from your partner. Often our only ‘me time’ was when one of us went to the loo or had a shower. And even that wasn’t a guaranteed solo activity.

If there were any taboos left in our marriage when we left home, their demise probably began around the time of the Guatemala diarrhoea incident (see Bad things no 1. The Toilet Situation) and continued with every use of the emergency night-time pee bottle. If you’re thinking of doing a trip like this and don’t fancy the idea of loudly peeing in to a plastic bottle 6ft from your partner’s face, get a bigger van.

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5. THE TRANSIENCE

Desert driving, Peru

Off we go again…

There are a few down sides about being nomadic (but see also Good things no 1. – Freedom). Yet again, how much you care about this depends on the mood and the circumstances.

I’d love to know how many hours we spent packing up to leave, arriving somewhere new and moving all the stuff around again.

For us one of the hardest things about being transient was when we needed to get things done. We were continually starting from scratch because our environment changed so often we were always the newbies in town and didn’t know where things were. Sometimes we’d literally be driving randomly around the streets of X town or village, hoping to stumble across a mechanic, launderette, ironmonger, internet shop, food market, water or ice seller, some obscure piece of something for the van, an actual campsite or somewhere to stop for the night. It can get tiresome because everything requires a bit more time and effort.

Roadside camp

Packing up, moving on.

Sometimes we were lonely too. Over four and half years we met a lot of people, some of whom we now consider to be great friends. But it was all so temporary. We, and they, were always moving on. It was nice when we bumped into people more than once – we got a little taste of that familiar feeling that is so rare when you’re travelling.

Despite all the great folk we met, a massive majority of our time was actually spent à deux. Here’s a guilty secret – having no friends or social life to speak of is often really quite nice, in that life is just very simple. But most of us thrive on our connections with other humans, and we did feel the absence of our family and friends very strongly.

We’d crave a spontaneous night out or a long lazy brunch with people we loved and with whom we had a shared history and outlook – those people in your life that don’t require introductions or explanations.

Some days there were down times – especially during the long Argentinian siesta – when we felt incredibly ‘baseless’. Just hanging around waiting for things to happen before we could move on to the next place or return to our campspot for the night.

Perversely, despite the occasional frustrations our transient lifestyle didn’t necessarily lead to a desire to have a permanent settled home. In fact I think our boredom threshold became progressively lower. At the very end of the trip we stayed in a lovely apartment in a great, lively part of Buenos Aires for a month. After three weeks of it Jeremy looked quite alarmed when I said one morning: “Jeez, every time I go out it’s just the same streets every time…!

As we begin the process of finding somewhere to live again, this is probably an attitude I need to address.

Camping at Cabo Dos Bahias

Where is home?

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500 days!

24 Mar

Today we celebrate 500 days on the road!

People often ask, ‘what have been the best bits?’ Impossible to answer. They range from huge awe-inspiring sights – like hiking an active volcano, gazing at Mayan ruins, or looking a snake in the eye – to little moments that would be lost in translation.

It’s been 500 days of exploring, learning, making friends, being rescued by strangers, having more time to be silly, to read, to think, to look around, to travel without a plan. It’s involved spectacular beaches, mountains, jungle, wildlife, and indigenous culture. There have been ill-advised ferry journeys, crazy cities, sanity-stretching bureaucracy, a lot of food, even more beer, unhinged drivers, a few scary moments and more mechanics than we could shake a catalytic converter at.

Here’s a slideshow, not selected for its artistic merit, but because it might go some way to summing up some of the sillier moments of life on the road.

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Paradise found

26 Aug

Panama City, Panama
[by Paula]

Yellow-bellied racer snake eating a lizard, Corcovado NP, Costa Rica

Snake snack: we came across this yellow-bellied racer snake with a freshly-caught lizard in its mouth. Gulp.

Of course, we’d never seek a corporate sponsor for our trip – gosh, perish the thought! – but if we did have one there could only be two contenders. Superglue or Velcro. Without which we would literally be falling apart.

We’ve been in Panama for two weeks now, and a good few hours of it has been spent fixing, sticking and investigating all our little breakages of recent weeks. I’ve even sewn a new curtain to replace the back window blind.

But enough of all that excitement. First there is one final chapter of our Costa Rican adventure to share.

We’d travelled to the Osa Peninsula for one reason – to hike into Corcovado National Park, a wildlife-rich world-famous tropical rainforest which National Geographic called ‘the most biologically intense place on earth’.

If you are very rich and/or unimaginative you can fly in to the park’s Sirena ranger station, but most people hike the 19km from the last piece of road at Carate. The information we had about the trail was a bit sketchy, but we chose to go without a guide because the path more or less hugged the coastline and much of it was actually along the beach.

Anteater, Corcovado National Park

Anteater, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica.

The first hour, on a shadeless beach of steep soft sand, was pretty challenging. By 9am the heat was intense. We were carrying way more than we normally would, because to stay at the ranger station we needed all our food for three days, plus bedding and enough water for a very hot and humid 8-hour hike.

After that test we moved inland to the shade. We took our time, delighting at our first ever sight of a troop of squirrel monkeys, and an anteater which appeared to have such poor sight it climbed down a tree and virtually brushed past us on the path. Scarlet macaws swooped around the tree-tops in pairs.

The trail was not always clear and we relied heavily on the footsteps of walkers who were ahead of us but out of sight.

As we reached the next long stint of beach walking, we’d caught up with a park guide who warned us that we had to reach the ranger station before high tide, because we’d have to wade a fast-flowing river at the end which could become dangerous.

By now we were tired but with the time pressure there was little room for rest. We tramped across the searingly hot beach for about an hour, sliding down the sand with every step. It was incredible – a delicious slice of heaven with a little dollop of hell on the side. A mind-blowing untouched jungle-backed beach, but also the hardest part of the trek.

Squirrel monkey, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

We saw wild squirrel monkeys for the first time at Corcovado.

We both felt as if we might be dangerously overheating. I am aware of how melodramatic this sounds, but at one point I did fleetingly think: “I’d actually quite like to faint now, because then I will have to be carried for the rest of the way.”

Then I looked at the state of Jeremy, and revised my plan: “Bad idea. If I collapse now there’s more than a 90% chance I’ll be left to the vultures.”

We finally reached the river crossing and luckily there were other walkers just ahead, so we could see how deep the river was before taking the plunge. I waded waist-high in my underwear, all inhibitions diminished by my desire to get there without a set of entirely soaked clothes.

On the final stretch we encountered a Baird’s tapir, an endangered species which is rarely seen in the rest of the world. A great lump of an animal, we reeled back a bit when we first saw it grazing by the path, before realising we weren’t likely to be mauled.

At dusk we arrived at the ranger station, which is also a major research site, and celebrated with a very weak and wobbly air-punch. The bad news was that our only way out of there was to hike back the same way. I wondered if I was up to it. We thought maybe we were being a bit pathetic, but were reassured when one of the guides told us loads of tourists either didn’t make it to Sirena (sometimes having to sleep on the beach because they got lost or couldn’t cross the river) or refused to hike back after they arrived!

Puma, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

We were really lucky to see a puma during the hike out of the park.

We were sore the next morning, and took it slowly, although the day had started with a rude awakening. I reached into my bag for something and was wearing a glove of biting ants when I drew my hand out. Great! A massive infestation of my least favourite insect – zillions of which had found a food spillage in my bag. We’d gone to a lot of trouble to keep things dry in the rainy humid weather, but the whole backpack had to be plunged into water to flush those buggers out.

We bounced back and spent the day hiking some of the shorter trails around the ranger station, which is a haven for wildlife. We plunged through mud and streams, marvelling at the forest, and saw spider monkeys, more anteaters, and a Great Curassow.

It was hard to photograph things in the dense foliage. I spend ages trying to snap an amazing lizard which had a yellow throat that fanned out. I finally gave up, vowing to find another one by the end of the day.

Later, we did find one, but not in the way we’d expected. We’d spotted a snake rearing up in the leaves ahead of us, and when we caught up with it we noticed it had something in its mouth. I photographed it and we zoomed in, only to see one of those poor yellow-throated lizards, still alive and in the jaws of the snake.

As we sat resting on the deck at the ranger station, toucans shuttled back and forth in the trees in front of us. There were spiders that looked like they’d been on steroids, and flying crickets the size of sparrows.

We started our return to Carate at dawn the next day, wading the river in the half-light. We dodged the high tide, scrambling over rocks and climbing onto higher trails. As we rounded one corner, a park guide gestured to us frantically from further up the hill. “Up here, quick!”. They’d spotted a puma. We scrambled up, and there she was, sleeping on a fallen tree. Unforgettable.

Wading the Rio Claro, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

We waded the river at dawn as we began the eight-hour hike back.

Blistered and knackered, we got back to Carate and shared a collectivo back to Puerto Jimenez with some of the park guides. We’d found it hard in parts, we said, but we felt privileged to have been in paradise and would do it again. The wonder of Corcovado was something they were clearly proud of, and they said they supported the conservation of the forest. But it had come at a high price for local people. One of them had actually lived at Sirena, as a youngster, before the area became a national park. The government had forced them to sell their farm there for a paltry $13,000, he said. His friend had a similar tale of his family’s land nearby.

Later we hobbled to a local restaurant for dinner, and that night set a new record by being in bed asleep by 7.45pm.

Reluctantly, we left our much-loved campground in Puerto Jiménez, and drove towards Panama. Our last night in Costa Rica was spent at rather less of a beauty spot – a truck stop on the border, where the little van was lost in a forest of massive American rigs.

Arriving in Panama we went straight to the city of David, where we spent a few days looking into our mechanical issues [should be sorted soon] and getting our propane gas leak checked out [small leak, but can be safely used until we replace a part].

While there we managed to coincide with fellow road-trippers Andy and Dunia, of Earthcircuit – whom we’d first met in Honduras – and spent a couple of evenings catching up over some cervezas.

We did what the locals do and headed from there into the hills, to cool off. Boquete is gourmet coffee country, so we were wired on caffeine after sampling several brews. After sploshing about in the rain and feeling chilly for two nights we thought, “Hhmm, this is like being in the UK. Let’s move on.”

Carnival queen, Festival del Manito, Ocu, Panama

The Ocu carnival queen was one of the ‘brides’ at a mock campesino wedding in the village. Azuero Peninsula, Panama

En route to a beach south-east of David we drove through the most incredible storm. We pulled off the road and waited it out, and when we left again the highway was strewn with trees and branches. We ploughed on to Las Lachas, but when we arrived it was pretty bleak. I waded through enormous river-fed puddles to see if the van would make it through them. We pulled on to the beach and ate a limp peanut butter sandwich, looking out at the grey beach, grey rainy sky and howling wind. “This feels like a holiday in Aberdeen,” we said. “Let’s go”.

We headed towards the Azuero peninsula, a relatively drier and more remote part of the country. Next day we had a spectacular sunny drive to its southern tip. The rolling pastures, the smell of cut grass in the clean air, and little cottages with pristine gardens also reminded us of the UK, but this time in a good way.

We had a great piece of luck by coinciding with a festival as we passed through the village of Ocú. We stopped for a few hours and watched a mocked up ‘campesino’ wedding, as part of the Festival del Manito. After the church service, one of the couples was paraded through town on horseback, as the men swigged from bottles of Seco, the local firewater.

We went on to spend a few days body-boarding, swimming and camping at a great spot overlooking the bay at Playa Venao, before dragging ourselves away to head for Panama City. Driving over the Bridge of the Americas – at the southern end of the canal – was quite an introduction to the place, giving us a breathtaking view of the city.

Bride and groom, Festival del Manito, Ocu, Panama

The ‘bride and groom’ at a mock campesino wedding in Ocu, Panama, feed each other after the ceremony.

There is much to organise here, in preparation for a trip to the UK we are taking in a couple of weeks. We spent one day driving to the customs office and storage places, to sort out all the bureaucracy involved in leaving the car here while we go home.

Based on past form, we expected to get lost in the city. There was a reasonable chance of some shouting and swearing. As I got into the driver’s seat, ready to set off, I decided to pre-empt what may come.

“Jeremy,” I said. “Let me say that whatever comes out of my mouth this morning, I want you to remember that I love you.”

And in what may be another new trip record, we’d only driven 100m before the first u-turn-related expletive.

Days: 328
Miles: 10,889
Things we now know to be true: It makes sense to get in early with the apologies.

Snap, crackle and pop

15 Aug

David, Panama
by Paula

I wouldn’t say we are clumsy people by nature, but in recent weeks we have broken more things than could be considered normal for anyone beyond toddler age. Is anything built to last?

One of the many things we have discovered in the last year is that when your domestic world shrinks to the size of a van and its contents, and when that world is constantly moving, it is infuriating in stratospheric proportions when things break.

Why? Because every single thing in the van is there because we need it, there’s no room for spares, and many of those things – such as an awning to protect us from burning sun and rainstorms – can feel pretty crucial to us having a pleasant day.

Waterfall near Quepos, Costa Rica

We encountered another venomous viper on the way to this waterfall.

And when stuff does break we rarely have a quick solution. Always being in a foreign landscape, we don’t immediately know where to go to replace things or get them fixed. Everything takes longer to resolve. Vehicle camping is a foreigners’ pursuit here, so you can’t just walk into a shop and expect to find the particular kind of stuff you need for a trip like this. As for mechanical problems, well… the world over, finding a trustworthy mechanic is a lottery, and Latin America is no different.

Conversely though, when you do solve a problem, you celebrate as if you’d just won a hat-trick of golds at the Olympics. At both ends of the scale, our emotions are often all out of proportion.

We’d had a good trouble-free run with the van since leaving Honduras. So when the ‘check engine’ light came on in Cabuya, Costa Rica, we pulled into a mechanic with some trepidation about the diagnosis. If I even heard anyone whisper the word “transmission”, I’d decided, I was just going to lie on the ground and stay there with my hands over my ears.

So we were actually quite relieved when he said it was the catalytic converter. Yeah it was definitely that, he said. He told us to get a new one, so en route to the next place we called into an exhaust specialist and asked him to replace it. After a few hours it was done and off we went.

As darkness approached we took a punt on a sign off the main highway to a restaurant and trout farm that we hoped we could camp at. We bumped along for a few kilometres and arrived to find it in darkness. But soon enough the lovely family that owned it came out and gave us an enthusiastic welcome, letting us camp in a lovely spot by the river and offering to open up the kitchen to cook us some rice and chicken. We’d only been passing through, but it was so nice we decided to spend the next day there.

In the morning one of the children, 15-year-old Alberth, took us hiking to a waterfall and gorgeous swimming hole. As we tramped along Jeremy stopped dead behind me. “You’ve just stood on a snake,” he said. I looked back and a small brown snake was curled up on a leaf I’d just walked over.

We looked to Alberth for reassurance, but he reared backwards and said: “That’s really bad.” Another venomous viper! We can’t move for those at the moment. He flicked it into the undergrowth with a stick and we tried not to think about what could have been.

When we set off the next morning the check engine light shone back to life. It was Sunday, inevitably, so nothing could be done. It was also our 300th day on the road, and as we carried on down the Pacific coast and passed Dominical, we hit our 10,000-miles-so-far mark. We do love a milestone or two.

Jeremy walking along the beach at Uvita

Long walks at Uvita, Costa Rica

We drove to Uvita, a stunning flat, wide surfers’ beach, and happily based ourselves there for a few days to sort things out and take long walks on the sand.

The mechanic we found there said the problem we had was with one of our 02 sensors. He rang his mate who knows about European cars. Yeah, it was definitely that, he said. It would need to be replaced, and the original part for VW would come from San Jose in a couple of days. No problem. We arranged to bring the van back in 3 days to have it fitted, and would then drive straight to our next destination.

Three days later we went back. It was the kind of day that is becoming wearily familiar, going roughly like this:
US: “We’re here”
HIM: “But the part is not. Apparently it’s a holiday so there are no deliveries, but I’ve told him he has to be here this morning with the parts. Come back in a couple of hours.”
Later…
US: “We’re here again.”
HIM: “He’s still not here. He says he’s 20 minutes away. Come back in 45.”
An hour later..
US: “We’re here. Again. Hello?”
No sign of HIM.
HIS COLLEAGUE: “Erm, he’s not here. He’s gone to (name of random town). Or was it (name of other random town)… [or perhaps he’s just hiding? – ed] Anyhow, he said to tell you the delivery guy’s bike broke down 2 hours from here so he’s not coming now. You should probably just come back tomorrow.”
US: “Argh…”.

We found a new place to camp, and returned in the morning.

Jeremy, Paula and the van

Quick photocall at Dominical to mark 300 days and 10,000 miles.

HIM: “The part’s here but I need longer than I thought because the previous guy has welded the 02 sensor to the catalytic converter. [you’re really not supposed to do that – ed]. And I don’t think he’s put the right catalytic converter in there either.”
US: “Sigh”.

I’m afraid to say so many mechanics here spend a lot of time spouting off about what a terrible job the previous mechanic has done, only to then find a whole new way of buggering it up themselves.

We finally set off for the Osa Peninsula several hours late. An hour down the road the check engine light came back on. We swore a lot, pulled off the road in nowheresville and miraculously found a mechanic with computer diagnostics. He said there was a problem with the 02 sensor – that the mechanic we’d just used in Uvita had not installed an original part and what he had installed he appeared to have buggered up.

We sat in the car park in the pouring train, trying to decide whether to go back and get him to re-do it, or move on and forget him. Once someone has done a bad job, do you really want to wait around for another few days so they can cock it up again?

We moved on and decided to forget about it for a few days, as although the van was sounding a bit rough it was okay to drive.

After a certain point the road to Puerto Jimenez, on the Osa Peninsula, deteriorates massively. We weaved up over the mountain in the fog and rain, trying to avoid the cavernous water-filled potholes. The road soon became more pothole than road, and we were finding it hard to see them as dusk fell. We pulled over to a national park ranger station and asked to camp and the guys were very obliging, waving us into a space next to their base. As so often happens, they kept their distance for a while, and then a little delegation was assembled to come over to peer inside the van and ask about our trip.

Scarlet macaws, Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

Our campsite in Puerto Jimenez was choc-a-bloc with Scarlet Macaws.

During the night, disaster struck. One of our worst fears, in fact. As we slumbered, at 4am the propane gas alarm went off, meaning we had leaking gas building up inside the van. When there’s any loud noise at night Jeremy’s reactions are lightning quick. He was on his feet and flinging the door open before I could say ‘wha…”. We were really shaken up – where the hell was the gas coming from? We switched it off at source so the gas quickly cleared, and the alarm stopped sounding. Another puzzle to solve.

It’s all about balance. Most times these annoyances melt away quickly after the initial tantrum. We look around at where we are, remember what we are experiencing, and resolve to not let the little problems ever dominate the endless amazing things we are seeing and doing.

Just to prove that very point, when we arrived in Puerto Jimenez the next morning in bright sunshine, we pulled into one of the most sublime camping sites we have encountered on this trip – a beautiful patch of land flanked by the ocean and a lagoon, where the trees are filled with scarlet macaws. As we parked up these bright red, yellow and blue parrots were swooping all around the sky above us. It was like being on some kind of film set, they just don’t look real.

The surreal nature of the morning continued when the owner, Adonis, came over and offered to take us to see the crocodiles in the lagoon. We watched, slightly nervously, as he called these enormous crocs and caiman over to be hand-fed. They reared out of the water and we took several steps back as they tossed huge chunks of fatty meat into the air and chewed loudly before slouching back into the water.

On the second day Adonis came over and said he’d been worrying in the night about where we’d camped – under a huge tree that was leaning over us. Great for shade, we thought.

“See all these massive logs lying around on the ground,” he said, pointing to various logs which I had draped our wet clothes over. “Those are rotten trees like this one that have previously fallen down. If one falls on your van I’d have to give you a patch of land as compensation.”

Adonis hand-feeds a crocodile

Snack time for Mr Croc.

Hhmm, we both thought, that doesn’t sound too bad, this being one of the most incredible pieces of land we’ve seen in all of Costa Rica.

“Well, that’s if you’re still alive,” he said. We found this to be a convincing argument, and moved the van.

While camping there we really went to town on the breakages. Another camping chair. Snap. The leg of our awning – sheared in half due to the weight of water after a storm. A vent cover ripped off the outside of the van in an incident with a gate. Then the central locking started behaving independently, locking and unlocking itself while we were sitting having a cuppa outside the van.

Our much-needed back window blind, a kind of sprung concertina design which couldn’t be replaced here in a million years, went doiiiinggg and the bracket we need to fix it disappeared forever. Jeremy tried to repair it, but one night – in a scene not unlike the propane alarm incident – it pinged off with a great thwack, right next to our heads. In a nanosecond, as I tried to open my sleepy eyes, Jeremy was on his feet: “That was a tree! A tree falling on the van!” he shouted.

“It was the blind breaking again,” I muttered. “Now lie down.”

Days: 316
Miles: 10,305
Things we now know to be true: There are no quick fixes.

MORE PICS MORE PICS MORE PICS:Granada, Nicaragua
If you haven’t caught up with these, here’s a couple of sets of pics from Nicaragua:

Nicaragua part one
Nicaragua part two

A walk on the wild side

24 Jul

Cabuya, Costa Rica
by Jeremy

Eyelash viper

The venomous Eyelash Viper – looks all cute and innocent, eh?

It’s a jungle out there. Literally. From the Caribbean coast at Cahuita to the mountains of the Orosi Valley, the beaches of Tortuguero and the Nicoya Peninsula – hell, even in capital San Jose – Costa Rica is a wildlife wonderland.

It is a humbling experience to sit in the midnight darkness watching a 150kg green turtle dig a nest, lay more than 100 eggs, bury them and then make her way back to the sea. At Tortuguero we were treated to this amazing spectacle – made even more wonderful by the fact we’d travelled there upriver an hour from La Pavona, through a muddy, jungle-clad river, replete with crocodiles resting on the banks.

Pink bananas

Bananas, Jim, but not as we know them.

In the past fortnight we’ve had close encounters with howler and capuchin monkeys, raccoons, Lora snakes, hummingbirds, Pava birds – and frankly hundreds of other birds, marine life and mammals we can’t identify.

Even yesterday, at a tropical swimming hole in Cabuya, a shadow passed over the sun and overhead a glorious pink flamingo flew, then perched and posed for us.

And we actually thought someone was having a laugh the other day when we came across banana trees adorned with bright pink versions of the fruit. No, really!

Not all the wildlife is of the cuddly variety though. Cuddle the bright yellow eyelash viper we encountered in Cahuita and you’d be dead within a couple of hours. Of course we didn’t know that when Paula stuck a camera lens in its face and I moved the leaf it was resting on to get a better shot.

Tapanti, Orosi Valley, Costa Rica

It was worth braving the rain to drive through the lush Orosi Valley

A few years ago, when we were in Syria, we camped next to a lake. As we settled down for a peaceful night in our open-sided bedouin-style tent the owner of the restaurant in whose grounds we were pitched said: “There are no snakes here”. What! We hadn’t even imagined there were – now we couldn’t sleep, the fear of the unknown amplified when a couple of what turned out to be stray cats ran across us in the early hours of the morning.

Back in Cahuita, by the time we came across the startling green and black frog we took the precaution of asking if it was poisonous. No, said Maria. Yes, said Alex. So that’s clear. Poisonous or not it was incredible. As was the wonderful Maria’s Camping site – a little haven on the Caribbean.

Tourism in Costa Rica is a double-edged sword – and there are two sorts. Some areas are being overdeveloped with exclusive resorts and foreign businesses buying up all the best beach and mountain land, constructing zip lines and other adventure activities. Hundreds of non-environmentally sustainable places are given names like eco-this or green-that. They are advertised in shiny brochures and on massive billboards lining roads the length and breadth of the country.

On the other hand there is wonderful community tourism, barely even noticeable. Sometimes literally. We’ve camped at sites that are not even known about by many locals, with, at best, a tiny handwritten sign propped up against a lamp-post to alert you to its existence. Needless to say, we’ve been the only people at any of these sites and yet have met lovely families who couldn’t be more welcoming, camped on the banks of amazing rivers, had sweeping vistas of the cloud forest or woken up right on an empty beach.

Howler monkey, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Monkeys galore at Cahuita, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast.

But before you switch off, it’s not all been unending sunshine and joy.

It’s rainy season (or as the clever marketing people now call it: the Green Season) and the van has developed a leak – or two. Twice we’ve carried out repairs and sat back content at our handiwork. Each time a new leak appears. The problem is we can’t find the source of this one. Our response? Head to Parque Nacional Tapanti-Cerro de Muerte (yes it does mean mountain of death!), the wettest place in Costa Rica – with an average of 7000mm of rain per year. Most of it fell the night we camped there I think – just after our propane gas ran out and we had to resort to cooking our stew on the hastily-assembled barbeque in a storm. Then the leak reappeared in the night. On Paula’s head.

All of which seems a trifle ironic in light of the fact that when we went white-water rafting on the Rio Sarapiqui we were restricted to class II-III rapids because the river was too low due to lack of rain. I say that as if I had wanted more adrenaline-fuelled thrills and spills. Some things are easy to say with hindsight.

And it’s not all been fun and frivolity – there’s been work too. In San Jose I spent three days working for the International Federation of Journalists alongside union leaders from across Latin America and the Caribbean. It was inspirational, as we heard from those standing up against death threats, corrupt governments and powerful commercial media interests. When we left we had gained new friends and comrades (and a few packets of butter from the breakfast buffet!), but also the realisation that just when we thought our Spanish was getting better we’d struggled with a bewildering array of new words, accents and pronunciations – including finding out that words which mean one thing in El Salvador or Panama are insults in Argentina or Uruguay. There may be trouble ahead…

Cooking stew on the BBQ

When the gas runs out on your half-cooked stew, thank goodness for the back-up BBQ.

So now we’ve come full circle. Before we headed to the US to begin this journey last summer we had a month-long break in Costa Rica, here at Cabuya. (As my sister so delicately put it: “What! You’re having a bloody holiday before your massive bloody holiday.”)

We’ve returned to see friends we made then – Patricia and Simon – and because it feels like a real milestone to come back to where it all began. And actually getting back here, especially when our transmission problems made it look like we might not make it, feels like a real achievement. It seems the perfect place to reflect on all that has happened and changed in the last 12 months since we left home… for example, you really know life has shifted gear when you can spend over an hour watching an immobile sloth. But more of that next time.

Days: 295
Miles: 9,854
Things we now know to be true: Bananas can be pink, snakes can be yellow.