Tag Archives: Ecuador

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.

Click to return to list

——

 

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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A transmission tragedy – abridged

14 Apr

Broken van

by Paula

You might have wondered how a broken van could possibly take 11 months to repair. We’ve frequently pondered that too. Now that we’re happily on our way again, lazing on a sun-kissed Peruvian beach, let’s have a little flashback. If you are not remotely interested, step away now because it’s not going to be pretty.

There’s a US theatre company that specialises in boiling down long, serious and convoluted stories into a few minutes of entertainment. Some of their more famous performances have been the complete works of Shakespeare or the Bible, covered in one session.

They are called the Reduced Shakespeare Company. I thought I’d steal their style and turn our 11-month Ecuadorian van repair saga into a 3,000-word projectile word vomit. And, believe me, this is the summary – it doesn’t even cover the simultaneous (related) nightmare we had with immigration and customs, which is mostly covered in our Ecuador posts from last year.

It was either this or the complete works and, frankly, no one wants to read that.

——

Mid-April 2013 we pulled into a mechanic specialising in German cars, said please fix our fuel injector, they said okay. Days later they said actually it’s buggered, you need a new one, we said okay we’ll order one from the US. It arrived, they said oh sorry it’s a five-day holiday here now, see you next week, we said damn. [Irony alert: we were really frustrated about this extra five-day delay].

They faffed around then said come back to the workshop. When we returned they were pushing the van into a corner, we said that’s not good. They said while we were out testing the fuel injector the transmission broke and we had to tow it back. We said, what, our one-year-old transmission broke?! They said yeah, it’s buggered. We said, oh we better have a lie down. They said all these parts inside are broken, you need to order replacements from the US and we’ll rebuild it, we said okay. It took ages to sort out the order, send the parts to California, then Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs.

Bugger.

Bugger.

Several weeks later – in May – they arrived, we said phew, the mechanic said well not really because they have arrived incomplete. We said shit. It took ages to sort out the new order, to send the parts to California, then to Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs. Is this sounding familiar?

We said now is it ready?.. because it’s already June. They said testing went well, come in tomorrow. We arrived at the workshop, the transmission was in pieces on the floor in a puddle of oil. We said that’s not good, is it? They said all was well but after more test-driving the transmission oil starting leaking, a rubber seal is damaged, we said oh. They found a replacement. We said now is it ready? They said no, when we tested it again the transmission oil was burning up, maybe the converter is broken, we said wtf, how much will that cost? They said loads. They ordered a new one, meanwhile they tried out a used one they had. They said when we test-drove that one the transmission oil was burning up again, we said this is getting boring.

They said maybe we need some more advice, we said that might be good because it’s now, like, July. They said some expert in the US says you might need a valve body unit and you should have been sold a new cooler when you bought the transmission last year, we said it was nice of VW to tell us that when they sold us the transmission. They said bastards, we said yeah. They said we better order those then, we said okay maybe we should just buy a house here, it looks like we might never leave, they said ha ha good one!

It took ages to sort out the order, send the parts to Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs. We said are the parts here yet? They said, er, kind of but they are stuck in customs, we said there’s a surprise. We said are they here yet? They said yes, finally. We said okay can we go now? They said, well…. we put the new parts in but during the test we starting losing pressure, it might be a problem with an ‘O-ring’. We said perhaps that should be renamed the ‘O-for-fuck-sake-ring’, they said eh? They said we’ll have to look into it, we said is someone actually trying to hold us hostage here? They said it’s starting to look that way.

We said what’s happening, they said actually we think we might have had a eureka moment, we said please share. They said we are tearing our hair out here, we repair automatic gearboxes in German vehicles all the time but we’ve never seen one as bad as this, so we went back to the drawing board, we said what did you find? They said we think there was a factory fault with the transmission you had in your van, VW managed to omit a very important screw and washer that holds important things together, which means everything’s been moving inside and completely fucked it up, we said that’s disappointing, they said yeah it is. We said wouldn’t it be funny if four months of investigation and loads of money spent ends in the mystery coming down to a screw and a washer, they said yeah, hilarious.

Quito

We got to know, and love, Quito during our various stays

We said is it ready yet? They said we’ve put it together again and now we have to drive test it. We said how did it go, they said really well, we said great, they said we’ll just drive it for a couple more hours, you can pick it up tomorrow, we said phew because our visas run out again in two days, at the end of August, and now we only have a couple of weeks to get to Chile to meet Paula’s parents.

We said we’re all packed, excited and are on our way!! They said oh. We said what? They said after 100km of testing the transmission seized up, we nearly had an accident, it’s completely fucked again, it might be an electrical fault and nothing to do with the actual gearbox. We said we want to cry, we don’t think we can do this anymore, they said neither can we, we never want to see this hideously awful transmission again. We said how about you just drop the van off the hydraulic lift, total it and then we’ll claim it on the insurance, they said really? They said actually it wouldn’t do enough damage, we said that’s a shame.

We said how about we try converting it to a manual gearbox, they said good idea let’s investigate.

We said good luck with that, it’s now early September and we’re off to Chile on the bus because we have to meet my family and we’ll never get there in the van, they said have fun. We said you really have to be finished when we get back in about 6 weeks because we really have to be in Bolivia by 1 November to start a volunteer work-exchange thingy, they said yeah okay.

They said we’ve found a matching manual gearbox in Ecuador, shall we buy it?, we said yes. We said how’s it going, they said we got the gearbox but we didn’t like the look of it so we sent it back and will look for another one. We said did you find one, they said yeah but it really didn’t fit properly, but now we’ve found a third one and we like it, we said that’s good to hear.

Several weeks later – yes it is now October – we said how’s it going, they said we’re getting there. We said how’s it going now? They said we’re 85% there, the gearbox is working, except the computer doesn’t like it and goes into ‘limp’ mode so we need to trick it but we’re not sure how. We said let’s try to find out, they said yeah.

We said we need to set off to return to Ecuador from Chile now, but we don’t want to bother if it’s not fixed yet, they said er….. we said what? They said good news is we think we have a solution to the computer problem, but we need a part from Germany to make it work, should be ready about 6 November, we said Oh For Fuck’s Sake! We said we’re going to Bolivia now then, cos we can’t be arsed to hang around in Ecuador and then be really late starting our job, they said okay.

Friends came and went...

Friends came and went…

We said is the part there yet? They said no. We said is it there yet, cos we’d quite like to pick up the van around Christmas. They said we got the part and put it in. We test drove it and the computer problem was solved, we said brilliant!! They said we drove it and drove it, up hill and down dale, and it was going like a dream, we said brilliant. They said we declared it ready, we said seriously? They said but then the boss insisted we take it for an even more extreme mountain drive, he said there’s no point in giving it to them if it can’t cross the Andes, we said that sounds sensible. They said we took it up there and some of the pinions broke during the test, it seems the engine is just a fraction too powerful for the gearbox we’ve got, we said sigh….. They said arghhhh! We said ditto.

We said maybe we need to give up now, they said maybe. We all slept on it. Jeremy said I’ve looked into it again and maybe we need to find a solution in Europe, there’s this guy in Germany who I think can help, they said send us the details. We said we’re not going to be able to come and collect it at Christmas as planned, are we? They said no.

They said the guy in Germany can provide all the exact parts to put this together, we said super! They said the problem is all the parts are used, and it’s illegal to import used parts into Ecuador, we said we know, we’ve been here before, they said it wouldn’t be easy to clean up this whole kit and make it look like new, we said what now? They said we don’t usually do this but we’ll contact ‘a bloke’ in Colombia and see if we can send them there, then we’ll (illegally) drive them over the Colombia-Ecuador border, we said that sounds like just the kind of excitement we need.

We said what the frock is happening, please will you reply to our messages. They said the problem is the guy in Colombia wants far too much money to receive this package, so we’re still looking into how we can do this, we said we’ll contact some people in Colombia too then, they said thanks. We said we’re now in danger of missing our final, last-chance, Ecuador visa expiry date at the end of February 2014, which is not something we really could have envisaged last April, they said neither did we…. They said the latest gearbox should be despatched from Germany to Colombia on 8 January, we said better late than never.

Two weeks and hundreds of emails and phone-calls later they said thing is we got this guy to send it to Colombia, we paid him and got the tracking number. Then we went to Colombia to collect it and it wasn’t there. They said we called him and said WTF?  He said we had “taken too long to decide if we wanted it”. He is a (INSERT SEVERAL SWEAR WORDS) asshole. They said we have (INSERT SWEAR WORD) had it with this van, it is impossible, we cannot (INSERT SWEAR WORD) well do this any more, it is costing us a fortune in time and money and it’s costing you loads as well. They said we’ve tried everything to get VW to help us find the right parts but they say what we’re doing is impossible, that’s it, no more, sorry.

We said maybe this really is over now. Maybe it’s time to come up with a whole new plan, abandon the van – which we cannot legally sell in, nor remove from, Ecuador – and buy a different car. We said the logistics of all of that are a total nightmare but let’s make a list of options and look for other vehicles.

A few days later… we said are you really telling us you are giving up, even though we all still believe there should be a solution out there? They said, well….maybe we spoke in anger. We said we’ll look for a better contact in Europe, they said thanks. We said Jeremy has been back to all his geeky contacts online, and beyond, in fact he has been living on the internet for days, and we think a guy in Canada that Jeremy has found, has found in a guy in Holland who can come up with the goods, they said really? We said we hope so.

We had some freelance work to do to help offset our van expenses

We had some freelance work to do to help offset our van expenses

Holland Guy said I’ve looked into it and there’s only one manual gearbox in existence that you could use for your conversion, and I can get hold of it plus the other bits you’d need, we said you’d be the first person to have actually been able to name the parts we need – including VW, who have washed their hands of this from the start and are complete, utter bastards – and it sounds too good to be true but we’ll go with it. A squillion emails and several weeks later we said that’s all the parts ordered then, it’s February now so we better get back to Ecuador and sort this out.

We got back to Quito and said where are the parts, they said still stuck in customs, we said that sounds familiar. A week later, nearly mid-March, we said where are the parts, they said still stuck in customs, we said the longer this goes on the more likely we are to snap and stab someone [we didn’t really say that second bit out loud].

We said where are the parts, they said they all have to have a physical inspection by customs and if they find the two (illegal) used parts that you’ve hidden in there, the whole shipment will be confiscated, we said we know and it’s kind of keeping us awake at night, they said let’s hope they don’t spot it, we said yes let’s hope that.

They said all the parts have finally been cleared by customs, we said YAY!!!, that was close, they said you were lucky. We said all we have to work out now is whether these parts really do fit our van, as claimed, they said let’s hope so, we said yes let’s.

They said we’ve received all the parts and they look good, for the first time it looks like the parts are correct, the Holland Guy really seems to know what he’s doing, we said phew. They said Holland Guy thinks this is the first time in the world this conversion has been done on your specific engine, we said that’s both strangely comforting and very scary, they said yeah.

Gearbox diagrams

Worse than your worst Ikea flatpack nightmare – the mechanic gets to work on assembling the new manual gearbox.

They said we’ve put the gearbox in and it fits – just, with a millimetre to spare – we said gulp, YAY!! They said we’ve had to make some adaptations but things are going well, now we just have to work out how to trick the computer, we said yeah we thought that might still be a problem. They said we’ve done it all and we’ve over-ridden the computer so we think it’s going to work, we said let’s hope so, they said yes let’s. They said the clutch cylinder that came from Holland is not working properly, but we’ve done a temporary fix, you can drive but should order a replacement asap, we said sigh.

They said we’ve taken it for a first test drive and everything was perfect, we said we refuse to believe it until we are actually driving that van away from the workshop, they said fair enough. They said come down and take a drive with us, we said that would be nice. We drive to the mountains and everything felt lovely, we said YAY! They said we just need to do some final checks and clean everything up and then you can come and collect it, we said we still can’t really believe it, they said believe it, you are so out of here, we said I bet you’re looking forward to that.

They said come and get it, it’s nearly ready, we said YAY! They said only problem is you can’t drive it til 7.30pm because number plates ending in ‘7’ can’t drive in the city on Thursdays, we said another three hours won’t kill us but it will still feel like the longest three hours of our lives, they said come back to ours for pizza then, we said okay. We said that was a hell of a year wasn’t it, they said yes it was really stressful, we said yeah. They said remember the day you asked us to destroy the van by dropping it off the lift, we said yeah, they said that was a really bad day, we said yeah it was. They said Jeremy was a genius for finding Holland Guy, and Holland Guy was a genius for finally getting to the bottom of it, we said yeah. They said did we mention that the automatic was the shittiest transmission we’ve ever seen and that VW refused to help us with part numbers for this job, saying that what we were doing was impossible, even though they actually manufacture the gearbox we eventually used? We said, yeah we are all agreed that they are evil, uncaring, cynical corporate whores, they said spot on.

We said thanks for the pizza, and everything, we’re off to get the van now, they said bye then, we said ciao.

—–

A FOOTNOTE TO EKEKO:

There’s another little strand to this story. Now, we’re not religious people, we’re not even that vague half-way house that some people describe themselves as – ‘spiritual’. But people change, and we’re now firm believers in the Andean god of abundance, Ekeko. We’re not trying to convert you. We’ll simply give you the facts.

Thanks mate.

Thanks mate.

If you’ve read the above transmission tragedy, you’ll know that we spent many months trying to track down a manual gearbox that would actually fit our van. No one seemed able to help, not even the people who made the van. Enthusiasts in the US tried to help – they were also looking for the same solution but couldn’t find the parts either. Towards the end of January things were looking very bleak indeed. The mechanic had given up and we were simultaneously looking for alternative vehicles and making a last-ditch attempt to ask our contacts for help with our van.

Meanwhile we were busy with volunteering in Bolivia and doing freelance journalism work. I’d been commissioned to write articles on the Alasitas festival in La Paz. The festival centres around the god Ekeko – people buy miniature versions of all the things they desire for the coming year, and ask Ekeko to make them come true. We were desperate enough to try anything. We bought a miniature VW and little driving licence, a mini passport and suitcase (representing travel) and had them blessed by a shaman.

The following morning I was in a cafe writing my Alasitas article, when Jeremy emailed me to say: “Trying not to get overexcited but…. just had an email from a parts supplier in Holland who says he can find us our gearbox.”

That Ekeko guy works fast, we said! Make of it what you will, but with that we were back in the game.

The post you thought we’d never write

28 Mar
Van ready to go

Safe to say that mechanic Juan Carlos and owners Lothar and Lothar Ranft don’t ever want to see us again, nor us them.

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

We’re back on the road again. No, we can’t believe it either! After 11 months off the road, the van is finally purring away happily and getting ready to turn south again.

Having our home back is an incredible feeling. We’ve had some great digs while waiting, but we’d be lying if we said we hadn’t missed it.

Some aspects of the last year have been supremely stressful – the worst thing was not knowing how or when the saga would end. But our stoppage also led to some changes of plan that we find it impossible to regret, not least our unforgettable time in Bolivia.

You might wonder how the feck it could take 11 months to repair a van. That’s something we’ll be writing more about very soon. Suffice to say that – as far as we have been told – this is the first time in the world an automatic-manual gearbox conversion has been done on our specific model, year and engine-type. If anyone knows otherwise, we’d be happy to hear it.

It was bloody difficult for all concerned, but we’ve done it. Our mechanic’s wife waved us off last night with particular gusto.

For now we have another enormous challenge to face before we can truly relax and enjoy the ride, and we sincerely hope that very soon we can report good news on that front too.

Thanks to family, friends and fellow travellers for your concern and encouragement, now let’s hit that road!

Strictly come dancing

24 Feb

Dressed up for Fiesta of Mallasa

Cuenca, Ecuador
[by Paula]

A great many things have happened on this trip that could not have been predicted. In fact, the majority of happenings were not foreseen, but some are more surprising than others.

So when I was standing watching Jeremy change from his jeans and t-shirt into an 11-piece Bolivian dancing outfit, including big flappy woolly Andean trousers, poncho, a belt adorned with bells, wooden platform shoes with spurs and an outrageously camp hat, I thought: “Yeah, this is definitely right up there with all the other ‘things-we-didn’t-see-coming’.”

I wasn’t doing too badly myself, with my wool dress and pinny, headband and wide-brimmed sombrero flowing with multi-coloured ribbons.

In the way that only they can – quietly unassuming, yet without options for refusal – our Bolivia hosts Emma and Rolando had persuaded us to take part in the traditional Pujllay dance at the local town festival in Mallasa. Of course we wouldn’t have refused. It was a privilege and a one-off chance to experience a culture from within a small community, with friends who could show us the ropes. Obviously it was also a chance for some public humiliation, and who would pass that up?

It was a serious business – rehearsals began about two weeks before, and took place in the street. Different dance groups vied for space in Mallasa’s Calle 5, while the music belted out of a PA system dragged out onto the street corner. Along with the other gringo volunteers working for Emma and Rolando’s projects, we shuffled around trying to look like we knew what we were doing.

Not only was the festival a large parade for the spectator’s enjoyment, it was a dancing competition and source of community pride. At the very least we had to aspire to avoid totally embarrassing Emma and Rolando in front of their friends and neighbours.

Pujillay men's dance

The men had to leap around for hours wearing wooden blocks on their feet.

On the night before the festival we all gathered to view our costumes and learn how to put them on – they were highly valuable and, as is tradition, the organisers (chosen each year from the community) had virtually bankrupted themselves to pay for the event and after-parties.

In the Pujllay, the men have to wear rather intimidating wooden blocks on their feet and jump around warrior-like, their heavy spurs jangling. They strapped them on and had a first ‘shoe rehearsal’. The overwhelming consensus was that someone would break an ankle before the day was out.

Despite some nasty weather in the fortnight running up to the event, we all gathered on Sunday afternoon in unbroken sunshine. Bolivians have an uncanny knack for predicting the weather, and we had been assured “it never rains on fiesta day”. They were right, again.

The streets were lined with spectators, food vendors and crates of beer for sale. We had a swift cold one to garner ourselves, lined up in our groups as the band got going behind us, and set off down the main street.

Mallasa is not a large town – in bigger fiestas in La Paz, dancers will parade for miles – but we were pretty hot and exhausted by the time we reached the judges’ platform, yet we were only half way. We smiled like mad and tried to look proficient. It was amusing to watch people’s faces as we swooshed past – there go the gringos!

Every now and again I craned my neck to see the men’s group dancing behind us – occasionally seeing Jeremy’s hat bobbing around at several inches higher than everyone elses.

Jeremy enjoys a relaxing beer after the dancing ends.

Jeremy enjoys a relaxing beer after the dancing ends.

The atmosphere was fantastic. People handed drinks to the dancers, and when we reached the end a crate was bought and guzzled in the street. We had our first opportunity then to watch some of the other groups coming past, doing different dances in a whole array of outlandish costumes.

Then we were off again! One of the best moments was dancing back through the town to make our entrance at the after-party. I temporarily joined the men’s group, stomping through the now darkened streets with increasing velocity, no doubt spurred on by the promise of more alcohol at the party. We made a loud and energetic entrance, congratulated ourselves and settled in for the free bar.

In the preceding weeks I had been doing some research for a BBC article about Bolivia’s ‘cholitas’ (en español)  – indigenous/mestizo women who dress in fascinating and distinctive outfits of bowler hats, layered skirts and shawls. One of their noticeable characteristics is that, although formidable in some ways, they are quite reserved people, not given to easily trusting strangers or behaving brashly in public. However, Emma had assured me that a Bolivian party would certainly involve a host of drunken cholita revellers letting their hair down. I found this very hard to imagine.

But within a couple of hours, a whole gaggle of cholitas – resplendent in their identical pink fiesta outfits – had dragged Jeremy and I onto the dancefloor. As we did a kind of conga around their crates of beer, swigging from plastic cups as we went, I thought: “Yeah, this is right up there with all the other ‘things-we-didn’t-see-coming’.”

Don't be fooled. These elegant cholitas got stuck into the beers later.

Don’t be fooled. These elegant cholitas got stuck into the beers at the party later.

The festival was particularly special for us because we would be leaving the village in two weeks. We’d made the decision to return to Ecuador for reasons of an expiring visa and to, erm, Sort Out Our Van. For anyone who has – understandably – lost track of our mysterious campervan, it’s still in Quito and has been for many many months.

There will be more on that later, but we had to get back there and either see through a final attempt to fix it, or make alternative arrangements.

Suddenly it felt like we had a lot to do before we left. We had an unusually large volume of freelance journalism work to do, and there were a lot of jobs to complete on Emma and Rolando’s soon-to-be-opened campsite, including marketing and publicity materials. Jeremy designed leaflets and a logo, and we twiddled and tweaked the website. Signs were designed and made, and we started putting the word out to other websites and blogs.

We met our very capable replacements on the project, Don and Rochelle, and managed to find time for some important training, such as How To Drink A Lot of Wine.

On our last evening, Rochelle – who claims to normally be a light drinker – declared that she had “never left our house sober”.

Our work in Jupapina was done. It was time to move on.

The Mendoza-Donlans gave us a fondue farewell.

The Mendoza-Donlans gave us a fondue farewell.

A series of farewells only served to underline how many lovely friends we’d made – to mention but a few; the entertaining and ever-helpful Anita, Anahi and Raquel from Up Close Bolivia, our housemate Naomi – who broke her cooking embargo to make us a delicious Spanish meal before we left – and Verity, who arrived in January and soon sniffed out our shared love of food, wine and chat. Sadly, by this time Alison and Doug had return to the frozen north (Canada) and could only weep at the thought of our Singani cocktails on the terrace.

Clara and Geovanna, who worked in Emma and Rolando’s house, cooked hearty and delicious lunches for us every day and listened patiently to our bad Spanish.

And of course Emma, Rolando, David and Bell, who took us out for a sublime palpatation-inducing fondue lunch before we left. They also hosted a big gathering of all the volunteers, plus Clara and Geovanna and their families – with chori-pan (barbequed sausages on bread rolls) and choclo (sweetcorn) and lots of lovely speeches!

Facing a 30-hour bus journey to Lima, Peru, at 8am on Sunday, we made the sensible decision to have a night out with Emma and Rolando the evening before we left. “It won’t be a late one,” said Emma.

As we crawled into bed just before 2am, I thought: “I definitely saw that coming.”

Days: 875
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 9,909
Things we now know to be true: If a cholita tells you to dance, you dance.

BUMPER CROP OF PHOTOS IN TWO GALLERIES BELOW – CHOLITAS, PLUS THE FESTIVAL AND GOODBYE JUPAPINA. Many thanks to Rochelle and Verity for taking lots of photos for us on fiesta day.

——-

CHOLITAS

——-

FESTIVAL OF MALLASA AND GOODBYE JUPAPINA

Plan Z

13 Sep
Jeremy and Paula, Lima, Peru

Backpackers again (for now)

Arequipa, Peru
[by Jeremy]

Travelling South America’s coastal highways and precipitous mountain roads, you experience a series of dizzying twists and sharp turns. Our own journey over the past few weeks has been more a series of switchbacks, diversions, u-turns and a few dead-ends.

Next week we are meeting Paula’s parents in Chile. We are in Peru. Our van is in Ecuador. Bugger.

But it’s not all been mechanical woes, switching from plan A to B to C to Z, laughing, crying and occasionally (okay, often) swearing in the face of stupefying bureaucracy. Oh no. There’s been dogs in comas, hospitalisation, some killer cocktails – and a rather tasty beef wellington. Take that Life Remotely! 🙂

Beef Wellington

We were all excited to have an oven in the apartment – cue the Beef Wellington experiment.

We left off our last posting having invited fellow overlanders Doug and Marcia – and their canine companion Maddie – to come and live with us for a while in Quito. To say it was an eventful few weeks is an understatement. First Maddie went for her routine blood tests, had an allergic reaction to the drugs, and fell in to a coma. Doug and Marcia spent 48 hours sleeping in the car park at the vet, helping to nurse Maddie back to full health. They succeeded.

Then Doug went kayaking in Tena, got an ear infection, did a passable impression of the elephant man as the side of his face swelled up, and ended up in hospital on a drip. He also survived – at least he was doing fine last we heard.

Meanwhile we were facing battles of our own. Picture the scene. It’s Wednesday night, the van has successfully completed a 100km road test, we are packed, we cook up a final meal, crank up the music and dream of parts beyond Ecuador. And so to sleep, perchance to dream.

At 7am. ‘Er, Jeremy’. What? ‘There is an email from the mechanic’. Great, what time can we pick the van up? ‘Er….’.

On its final road test the transmission had lost pressure, seized up again and come to rest on the other side of a major road while the mechanic was trying to do a u-turn.

Shall we unpack now or later?

And so, faced with yet another big delay in being able to leave with the van, and with just two days left on our visa and permit, we again had to brave the labyrinthine complexities of migration and customs officialdom. Customs, in their usual helpful and charming manner, met with us, looked out of the window while we explained our predicament and then told us there was nothing they could do to help us extend our car permit. They could, however, help us by issuing more fines.

Guac, salsa, margarita

Guacamole, check. Salsa, check. Margarita, boom.

Sod that. Thanks, but no thanks.

Migration were slow but helpful, and we are now the proud owners of a shiny new 6-month Ecuadorian visa. Next stop, residency.

Having started out with Doug, Marcia and Maddie living with us, they took over the apartment rental and we executed our own u-turn and began living with them. Same flat, same rooms just their cocktail glasses in the cabinet instead of ours.

The good thing about sharing a flat with the Burly Canadian and a southern US live-wire is that they know how to live. The Marciarita, her own unique take on a Margarita, is enough to knock you off your chair or get you up dancing.

Meanwhile Marcia’s sangria, laden with mango, raspberries and blackberries, is deceptively fruity when in fact its main ingredient is lashings of alcohol. Add to the mix their signature chips, salsa and guacamole, throw in an experimental beef wellington (rather good, even if we do say so ourselves) and some fish tacos and you have yourselves the antidote to all your problems.

Well, almost. For us, there were a few little matters to resolve – a 25,000 word report to edit on a tight deadline, and having to make some big decisions about the van (in case there is one person left who is not completely bored by our technical issues, we’ve now opted to ditch the troublesome automatic transmission and convert it to a manual).

Oh, and we had arranged to meet family in northern Chile in a few short weeks, but we were without the van and 5,000km away.

No problem. There are buses aren’t there?

“Give me a shove. There, there, you can zip it up now.”

In a retro move, armed with backpacks, a tent and a bus timetable, we finally said a (temporary) farewell to Quito. Nine hours later we hit Cuenca in southern Ecuador, called in for a few drinks with our friend Jess, awoke the next morning for the cross-border journey to the buzzing beach resort of Mancora, and the first opportunity to use our new tent.

Now, that’s it pitched, all that needs to happen now is for me to get in. There we go. No, don’t zip the door up, my head’s in the way. Hang on. If I just curl this leg over this backpack and move that arm here I can crawl down a little more. Give me a shove. There, there, you can zip it up now.

Yes, our tent is very small and provides much amusement whenever I have to get in – or out. Not for me, obviously.

After three nights of contortions it was a delight to finally get on a night bus to Lima and a uber-comfy bed-seat. I wake up in the middle of the desert. It’s spectacular. Paula enjoys the view but not half as much as the in-bus snacks of dinner and breakfast.

We must stop meeting like this. In Lima we stayed a couple of nights with our friends from the road Andy and Dunia who we’ve met four times now and who, rather handily, are looking after a B&B for a few months. They took us out for our first Pisco Sours – delicious. I can’t wait to see what Marcia does to one of those!

Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa, Peru

Visiting Arequipa’s Santa Catalina Monastery in the evening is really atmospheric.

Lima is always foggy and grey, they warned us. We enjoyed two days of lovely sunshine and blue skies, taking in the sights of the old city.

Then it was back to the night bus. This time for another 18 hours, through the desert to Arequipa. The final approach to this city at the edge of the Andes is amazing. Stark but beautiful desert scenery, surrounded by snow-capped 5000m-plus volcanoes. We’ve had a couple of great days here with its warm sunshine, pristine white colonial buildings and breathtaking backdrop – and alpaca steaks for dinner.

But there’s no time for just enjoying yourself when you have deadlines. Tomorrow morning we will finally head off to Chile to begin the last leg of our epic three-country dash to meet the family.

And the van? Like Maddie and Doug, we expect, it will make a full recovery soon.

Days: 673
Miles: 17,551
(not including the approx 10,000km round trip we are now doing by bus)
Things we now know to be true: Once you’ve tried a Marciarita, life can never be quite the same again.

Here’s some more photos from the last few weeks:

Getting a life

18 Aug
Skate park, Quito

Weekend park life in Quito is busy and atmospheric.

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

We’ve been getting a life recently. The more and more time we spend in Quito, the more it starts to feel normal to be living here.

When we finally get back in the van there’s going to have to be a period of re-adjustment, but it’s one we’ll embrace with joy. We can’t wait to really be home.

Sangolquí, near Quito

Festival in Sangolquí, near Quito

In the meantime, we’ve moved to a big new sunny apartment in Quito and have loved having lots of space to cook and entertain.

We began with a quiet week of finishing off our writing project – a report for a British NGO – which will be returned to us for editing in a week or so.

While that was going on we heard that we had lost our appeal against the customs fine we lamented in our previous blog post. It was really annoying but not very surprising. We took more advice and the conclusion was that we would never beat the system, as that required someone taking responsibility for wiping our fine. After much deliberation, and with a heavy heart, we decided to suck it up, pay the money and move on. We got the new vehicle permit and were finally completely legal again!

El Panecillo, Quito

City tour with Linda and Aron, ending with a climb to El Panecillo for a view

Soon after we were visited by Californians Aron and Linda of Andamos de Vagos, who were partially responsible for the first hangover I have suffered in ages. We gave them our little tour of old Quito and a couple of days later waved them off in their VW Westfalia, with hopes that we’d catch them up somewhere down the road.

Before long George and Teresa, of Road Adventure turned up for a few days. A definite highlight was the moussaka they cooked for us – a recipe from George’s home country of Bulgaria that was comfort food at its absolute best. While they were there, Marcia, Doug and their lovely dog Maddie – who are part of travelling collective Southern Tip Trip – arrived in their Sprinter van! Doug, and his friend Mr Glen Fiddich, were wholly responsible for the first hangover Jeremy has suffered in ages.

Dinner with guests, Quito

George’s Bulgarian moussaka was the star of the show.

It’s been great for us to have a busy house and a social life again.

We’d never met any of our guests before they came to stay, but most overlanders are pretty good at staying connected online through blogs, forums and Facebook. We manage, more or less, to keep track of each other and try to meet up where possible.

It’s not a complete coincidence that so many people are passing through Ecuador now. This small but steady flow of road-trippers is the 2013 ‘batch’ of travellers aiming to arrive in Argentina for this summer in the southern hemisphere.

That was originally our plan too, but after our little unexpected stay in Ecuador, we’ve decided that trying to get to the southern tip for this Christmas – while definitely achievable – will feel like too much of a rush for us. We’ve become meandering travellers, and we’d like to keep it that way.

La Ronda, Quito

La Ronda has been extensively refurbished and has cafes, bars and live music venues open in the evening.

So we’ve made a bit of a radical change to the so-called schedule. We’ll write more about it soon, but if everything goes to plan we’re going to be volunteering and living in Bolivia for up to six months from November. Watch this space.

Meanwhile we had the familiar rollercoaster ride of bad-news-good-news about the van repairs – a saga that we hope will end pretty soon.

We’ve had the time and space recently to think a little more about our future plans, the way we want to shape this journey and what we want to make of the opportunity. We’ve added a Frequently Asked Questions page to the blog which talks about some of those things, as well as a few of the practicalities that we often get quizzed about.

There’s one thing we’ve realised in recent months – we are very lucky that we have the flexibility to take a few curve balls whenever they come.

And when they do, we just have to put some temporary roots down and get a life.

Days: 647
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: Quito’s a place we could live.

Below is a large-ish slice of Quito life, in pictures. Click on any image to open it as a slideshow.

Chasing robbers

22 Jul

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been chasing two types of robbers.

The first, Ecuadorian customs, we are trying to outwit using the powers of logic, justice, and tenacity.

The second, an actual daylight robber, we chased off a bus, down the street, then pinned against a wall before handing her over to the police.

The latter may have been far less dignified, but it worked.

Latin American Monopoly

Let’s hope we don’t end up going directly to jail for not paying our customs fine.

The former – our fight with customs – was borne out of our attempts to make ourselves legal in Ecuador again, which we blogged about last time. Because of further delays with our van repairs we had run out of time on both our tourist visas and the permit for our van, which is issued by customs and only allows a foreign car to be in the country for three months.

At the 11th hour we’d been told by customs that we could not renew the car permit until we first had valid visas. So we made a plea to the director of migration to get a special 45-day visa to tide us over. It worked, and all the staff in migration were so helpful and understanding they even expedited the process and got us a super-fast one in two days.

We travelled back to customs, clutching our shiny new visas and feeling pretty chuffed about our success.

“Look Mr Customs officer!” we said, “we have new visas and got them really fast, just for you”.
“That’s great,” he said, “we can give you a new car permit. But now you are late, so all you have to do is pay the $1,000 (£650) fine that built up while you were sitting in the queue at the visa office for two days.”
“Erm, let’s think.” We thought for a moment. “No, we don’t think that’s fair, because we came here and applied for the permit extension SIX days ago, before it expired…”.

“The first I knew… was turning around to hear Jeremy going utterly berserk at the woman. They were wrestling over our iPad.”

This was the rather tense beginning of an excruciating eight-and-a-half hour day at the customs office – arguing, waiting, refusing to leave until we’d been heard. They just kept insisting we pay the fine, and that we sign a form to say we’d been notified of our transgression. We refused. Not only could we prove we’d informed them in plenty of time about our complete inability to take the car out of the country on time, one of their officers had actually travelled to the mechanic and inspected the broken van 3 days before our permit expired.

The useless manager who was dealing with us was in over his head. The fine was “on the computer” which made it irreversible, he said. The computer was apparently in charge. We felt sure they had made several errors with our case, but hell was going to freeze over before he admitted that and became responsible for wiping a potential $1,000 windfall off their books. He eventually agreed to bring us a letter explaining both the ‘transgression’ and our right to appeal.

Paula at customs office, Quito

Don’t think much of the customer service at the customs office.

After keeping us waiting for hours, at 5pm all the staff upped and left. We sat waiting alone. Useless Manager still hadn’t appeared. We waited. Then suddenly he shot out from behind us and bolted for the door – I mean, he was literally running like a hare. We shouted after him, and he gestured that he had to catch a bus. If we hadn’t been in such a foul mood, it would have been hilarious.

We waited another full hour before someone turned up with our letter and explained what we had to do.

We spent several days taking advice and composing a huge appeal letter, in Spanish, and all the documents for evidence.

Meanwhile we had a very welcome visit for a few days from Kiwi overlanders Will and Rochelle of Kiwi Panamericana who were passing through on their way north to Colombia. We enjoyed a few beers and some food while swapping travel tips and mechanical anecdotes, as they’ve also had their unfair share of things breaking on their car.

Monday morning we had one final chat with a lawyer we’d met, who also happens to be an exiled Chilean journalist living in Quito, and decided everything was ready to head off to customs with our appeal.

We jumped on a packed bus and stood in the aisle, rammed up against our fellow passengers. A man and woman next to us were behaving a bit oddly, and we exchanged some quiet words about whether they were up to something. We both had our bags clutched tightly to our chests, as everyone does on the buses here, and Jeremy was keeping a close eye on this woman who kept fiddling with her shawl and bumping into him.

As the bus pulled in at a stop, she pushed past him to get off. Amazingly, he caught a glimpse of our red iPad cover wrapped inside her shawl, and made a lunge for it.

The first I knew of anything going on was turning around to hear Jeremy going utterly berserk at the woman. They were wrestling over our iPad, and he was bellowing directly into her face. WTF?! He grabbed the computer off her and was shouting at the top of his voice as she tried to get out of the bus and away from him.

They both bundled off the bus, and I followed, grabbing the woman by the clothes.
It’s hard to remember every detail now, but there was loads of shouting. Jeremy then looked down and realised she had slashed through the side of his bag with a knife and – despite his being ultra-aware and holding on tight to it – had managed to take the iPad out without him realising.

Jeremy's slashed bag

Jeremy’s slashed bag.

In all the commotion outside the bus the robber slipped out the side of the platform, which in Quito are like covered train station stops. We suddenly realised she might have something else out of our bags – we were carrying our passports and documents because we needed everything for our trip to the customs office.

Jeremy was shouting for the platform guard to call the police as we quickly tried to check what else might be gone.

“She’s still there!” she shouted, pointing to the robber outside on the street. She opened the ticket gate for us and we catapulted out of there like greyhounds out of a trap. The woman saw us and started running like hell. Anyone who knows Jeremy knows that his loudest voice can be heard within about a 10-mile radius. He was continually yelling “call the police!” as we chased her down the busy road, and by the time we caught up with her a sizeable crowd had gathered.

I have always wondered how one might react in a situation like this. It’s amazing how fast you can run when you have adrenaline and indignation on your side. After the days we’d had, she picked the wrong time to rob us.

We caught her and got a firm hold, shouting god knows what, while she tried to deny doing anything. A bank security guard called the police and loads of people gathered round, making it impossible for her to escape. We established that nothing else had gone from our bags, but we still wanted to make a report to the police. A passerby came over with a mobile phone he’d seen her throwing under a car as we chased her – almost certainly stolen from someone else on the bus.

We really needed to get to the customs office – a two hour journey away – but didn’t want to let this drop.

After a few hours at the police station, they told us we could go, but that we would have to leave the iPad and bag behind for “a few hours” so they could be logged as evidence.

We did so and then headed off to customs to hand in the appeal, only having to make a minor fuss about some of our much-needed documents that Useless Manager had locked in his drawer before heading off on holiday. We left it in their hands, and were told we should hear the result of our plea in up to 10 days.

Will, Rochelle and Paula, Quito

Will and Rochelle come to stay!

What a day! It was a great novelty to have Will and Rochelle to come home to and tell the tale in our own language.

We currently have a large writing project to be getting on with, and were champing at the bit to get started. Just one last bit of bureaucracy to deal with the following morning, which was to collect the iPad from the police. Jeremy took the 45-minute walk there, only to be told property could only be collected after 2pm. He walked home, not a little annoyed.

We both returned there after 3pm, to be told we couldn’t collect our stuff because they had “lots of paperwork to do” and only certain people could sign the forms, blah blah. It all turned to white noise. Not for the first time that week, Jeremy went totally nuts. I was muttering “let’s try not get arrested….” but he’d gone. We were the victims, it was our property, we had volunteered it to them as our civic duty, and we wanted it back NOW please, he said, quite loudly.

Someone else came and explained that we should come back for the iPad “perhaps in a couple of days”. Whomever had told us something different was wrong, she said, adding that the police officers, in particular, had no idea how the system worked. That was the final straw.

How could we explain to them that we were now on something like our 13th day of dealing with incomprehensible bureaucracy?! We did not leave. We wanted our stuff back. We were promised a boss to speak to.

Eventually they sent one and, in all fairness, they sent the right guy. He was disarmingly camp, with a huge quiff. He spoke French-accented English, taught to him by his French grandmother. Basically he was an Ecuadorian version of ‘Franck’ the wedding planner from Father of the Bride.

Franck, Father of the Bride

Sending ‘Franck’ to help and calm us down was a stroke of genius.

“I hear you are very very angry,” he said.
We concurred.
“We have too much paperwork and not enough people to do it,” he explained, grabbing a mountain of files and desperately trying to find ours.

We understand this, we said. It is not exclusive to the Ecuadorian public services.  But it’s the time one wastes by being told a lot of bullshit that gets one’s blood pressure going through the roof. Why didn’t someone tell us at the beginning that this would take days?

“Oh, no one understands how it works,” said Franck, with a heavy sigh.

He typed furiously to get our paperwork done, frequently breaking off to talk to us about British accents, Scotland as depicted in Braveheart, and English stereotyping of the French.

“Just one thing”, he said. “Can you prove the iPad is yours? Do you have a receipt or something?”
“Are you (f*****)joking?” we asked. “Why would we be carrying a receipt? WE brought the iPad to you. WE caught the robber and gave her to the police. We left it here as evidence, only to help YOU.”
“I know. You were robbed yesterday, and now you feel like you are being robbed by the police!” said Franck… “So you don’t have a receipt or anything? We still have to prove that it belongs to you.”
***!!!!¥¥fcuuuuuuuuk^!
“Please don’t get angry. I believe you,” he said.
“Just BRING me my computer, and I will prove in 2 seconds that it belongs to me,” I said.

After several hours of form filling, stamping, signing and photocopying, at 7pm we retrieved our iPad from the vault.

“I hope we don’t get robbed on the way home,” I said, sending Franck into a renewed fit of giggles.

The project we’ve been working on for the rest of this week has been hard work but stimulating. It also makes a nice change, and is quite relaxing compared with chasing down robbers.

All we have to do now is wait to see whether it’s as easy to win victory over the Ecuadorian state as it is to chase down a slightly tubby bag slasher.

Days: 620
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: Sometimes you just have to make a scene.