Tag Archives: Nicaragua

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.]




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



1. The toilet situation

2. The “f****ing wifi”

3. The vehicle maintenance

4. The lack of privacy

5. The transience





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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Wayuu woman and baby in our van

People quite often wanted to be photographed with the van.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Desert driving, Peru

Off we go again…

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

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

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

Roadside camp

Packing up, moving on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camping at Cabo Dos Bahias

Where is home?

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500 days!

24 Mar

Today we celebrate 500 days on the road!

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

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

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

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The very hungry caterpillar

5 Jul

San Jose, Costa Rica
[by Paula]

Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

Fiery skies at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

None of our trips are complete without Jeremy getting bitten on the neck by some wierd tropical insect. And who knew cute furry caterpillars could abseil from trees, land on your shoulder and sting you?

As I watched the inch-wide rash blistering and swelling before my eyes, I calmly suggested he sat down and stayed still while I kept an eye on him. Inside I was wondering how quickly one might get to a hospital from an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. We described the perpetrator to someone who worked at the finca we were camping in, and luckily were told it was not dangerous. Another crisis averted.

Given recent events, the fact that a mildly aggressive caterpillar is the worst thing we can report from the last two weeks says something about the blissful time we had in Nicaragua. As well as being many other fabulous things, it is camping heaven. Just the tonic we needed after so long without the van.

When leaving Honduras, bound for Nicaragua, we whizzed through the border in record speed. As we signed the last piece of paperwork the Nicaraguan customs officer high-fived me.

‘Yep, I’m going to like this country’, I thought.

View from campsite at San Jacinto, Nicaragua

View of bubbling mudpools and volcanoes from our camp spot in San Jacinto, Nicaragua

Western Nicaragua is pretty much a massive ticking time-bomb of fuming volcanoes. So first stop was the ‘ring of fire’ – an area with a chain of 12 active volcanoes. We drove along an impossibly straight and flat road with the most sublime view of the volcanoes ahead.

In the tiny village of San Jacinto, we’d hoped that the hotel there might have room for camping, but it looked closed. We were just dilly-dallying about, wondering what to do, when we noticed lots of people waving and pointing towards what looked like the end of a dead-end street. “What are they waving at? They don’t even know what it is we’re looking for,” huffed Jeremy (and I mean huffed!).

Wrong. As we drove slowly towards them, nestled in the corner just before the end of the street was the most perfect little shaded campground, called Rancho Las Hamacas. It had a platform overlooking natural bubbling mud pools, sulphurous steam rising from them against a background of two spectacular volcanoes.

We climbed the very active Volcan Telica the next day – a fairly tough three-hour hike up that ended with peering over the rim of the steaming crater and listening to the monstrous grumbling below. Eek.

With aching muscles, we set off the next day to the left-wing city of Leon, a key hub of Sandinista support, and to the tiny museum of ‘heroes and martyrs’, which is maintained by a committee of mothers whose children were killed during the conflict in the 1970s and 80s. The town is also peppered with feisty political murals and memorials.

Sandino image at the mausoleum to the heroes and martyrs, Leon, Nicaragua

Sandino’s image is everywhere in Nicaragua, not least in the leftie city of Leon

On the way out of the city we were pulled over by the police for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. After much discussion and pointing it looked liked we were going to get away with it, but one of the officers kept leaning in the window and mumbling something about buying a drink. I didn’t even have to play the dumb foreigner – I really didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. I said, “I don’t want a drink, thank you’” and we drove off. As we did so Jeremy said: “He was drunk, he wanted us to buy him a drink!” Oh.

And that comedy of errors was the closest we’ve come to being asked to bribe a police officer in 9 months of driving through Mexico and Central America.

A few miles down the road we camped behind a hotel on the Pacific at Las Peñitas, and ate fresh fish with coconut, and the best fries we have encountered in a long while. The owner – a French woman – invited us to join her and a bunch of local surfer dudes who were driving back into Leon in a truck for the evening, to watch an open-air concert organised by the French embassy. That sounds civilised and cultured, we thought. At 4am the following morning we finally dragged her, blind drunk, out of a night club and back into the truck.

There was more camping utopia at the volcanic crater lake Laguna de Apoyo, where we swam in the pristine water, with howler monkeys bellowing in the trees above. In the gorgeous colonial city of Granada, we met up again with my former BBC colleague Lynda, and after lunch walked past a bar just in time to glimpse England losing to Italy on penalties in the Euro 2012 quarter finals.

While there we camped in a slightly weird lake-front ‘tourist centre’ – basically a strip of bars and restaurants along the front. It seemed like the only feasible place near town, but felt a little bit sketchy. We asked one of the wardens about camping safely, and she radioed her security colleagues, telling them to meet us at the car park. As we drove up they were waiting to guide us into a space, and then more or less acted as our personal security guards for the rest of the night. One guy slept near the van with a dog for the whole night – now that’s service.

P with a raspado con leche

The pure joy of discovering raspados con leche – shaved ice with a gallon of condensed milk poured over it.

However, it turned out the innocuous-looking restaurant next door was actually a dance club – so with music blaring till 3am we had a fairly poor night’s sleep. We headed off early next day towards the port of San Jorge, via another very active volcano, Volcan Masaya. It’s one of the only volcanoes where you can actually drive to the rim, but we’d heard it was closed due to excess activity. We turned up to find it had just been re-opened but officials had limited the time you could spend at the top to just 5 minutes, for safety reasons. So worried are they by the threat of an explosion or rocks being hurled from the crater that you have to park facing outwards so you can make a rapid escape!

We ended up running over our time, because at the top we spotted two other road-trippers from Germany who were driving a big truck – Sabine and Thomas – and had a chat with them while the steam belched out of the volcano behind us.

Back down in San Jorge we bought a ticket for the next day’s ferry to Isla de Ometepe – an island on the lake that is made up of two massive volcanoes – and then slept on the beach next to the port.

We had lovely memories of Ometepe after visiting 10 years ago, and it was just as spectacular as we remembered. We had a good long stop at a wonderful finca/hostel for 5 nights. Finca Magdalena is an organic farm, at the foot of Volcan Maderas, which is a co-operative owned by several families. We camped next to their stunning garden which was constantly full of butterflies. A little deer wandered around wearing a red neckerchief – very communist! At night the fireflies took over from the butterflies and lit up the trees in their hundreds.

Camping at Finca Magdalena, Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

A little slice of camping heaven at Finca Magdalena, Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

On the second day, we saw two very tired people returning with bicycles, with one of them saying: “that was the hardest cycle of my life”. ‘What wimps’, we said, with a smug little smile. However, we did wimp out of climbing the volcano, which was a fairly horrid 6-8 hour muddy climb into the clouds. We decided to cycle the 35km road around the base of the volcano instead.

It was the hardest cycle of our lives.

Six hot hours of up and down on a ‘road’ made up of jagged boulders and slippy stones. Ouch. But what scenery. We stopped for a fried fish lunch in a little bay with a view of Volcan Concepcion, one of the most iconic views in Nicaragua. Can’t grumble really.

While there I was busy writing a couple of articles for the BBC Travel website [an online commercial venture that’s not accessible from the UK, I’m afraid]. A piece on camping in Mexico & Central America and a related photo slideshow. Thanks to our fellow road-trippers at Life Remotely, Earth Circuit, Apollo’s Journey and From A to B for their help with it.

Early cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

Early morning cuppa at Playa Maderas, Nicaragua

Our last two nights in Nicaragua were spent on the gorgeous beaches north of San Juan del Sur. Surfers flock here for the fabulous waves – it was the most tourists we’d seen in one place for a long while. While there we bumped into Sabine and Thomas again. We camped in one surf camp that had howler monkeys living in the trees above us. The cacophonous sound they make can be quite disconcerting when it wakes you up at 6am.

But at least they’re not as scary as caterpillars.

Days: 276
Miles: 9,287
Things we now know to be true: Howler monkeys make very effective alarm clocks.

Honduras – we love you, we hate you…

27 Jun

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
[by Paula]

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

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

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

Volcano, Nicaragua

Can’t move for volcanoes in gorgeous Nicaragua.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pink boa snake, Cayos Cochinos, Honduras

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee finca camping, Honduras

Camping again. Heaven.

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

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

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

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

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

Our mechanic Ivan, San Pedro Sula, Honduras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Volcan Telica, Nicaragua

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back on the road!

9 Jun

San Pedro Sula, Honduras
[by Paula]

The van leaves the mechanic

Vroom vroooom. Happy days.

We are back on the road!

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

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

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

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

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, where life goes at its own pace.

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

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

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

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

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

Pearl Cayes, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Cayes – not too shabby a beach.

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

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

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

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

Seafood soup - rondon - at Pearl Cayes

Cooking up a seafood lunch, Pearl Cayes

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

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

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

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

Sunset in Awas, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

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

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

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

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

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

Cachuate, Cayos Cochinos, northern Honduras

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cayos Cochinos, Honduras

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

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

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

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

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


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


And finally… GRACIAS / THANKS! to …

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

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

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

    ‘Bad news sells’ shocker

    19 May

    Estelí, Nicaragua
    [by Jeremy]

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

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

    View from our Esteli apartment during a rainstorm

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

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

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

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

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

    Surely not what they were looking for.

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

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

    Jeremy sampling the wares, cigar-making factory, Esteli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Swimming in Somoto Canyon, northern Nicaragua

    Floating along in the Somoto Canyon, northern Nicaragua.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Shipping forecast

    3 May

    Managua, Nicaragua
    [by Paula]

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

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

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

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

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

    Cocktails for moi, Che for Jez.

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

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

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

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

    The four girls in NY

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

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

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

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

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

    Here are some pics from our recent trips:

    Havana, May Day 2012 – on Flickr

    New York – on Flickr

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