Tag Archives: transmission

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.

There’s no place like home

8 Apr
We did it! Making it to Peru was a massive relief

We did it! Making it to Peru was a massive relief

The beach, Peru
[by Paula]

When we blogged last week, to say that our van was back in the game after 11 months off the road, we mentioned that we had another enormous challenge to face before we could really get back into the road trip part of this journey.

We’re over the moon to say that that hurdle has been cleared – we are safely in Peru and ensconced on a peaceful beach, living the van life again and re-acquainting ourselves will everything that is so liberating about having a house on wheels. After so long living in apartments, we thought it might take a while to adjust again to the limited space, but we’ve only banged our heads about 67 times each in the last week, so that’s going really well so far.

Unfortunately we can’t yet publish the full story about what we went through to get into Peru – that’s something we’ll have to save for another day and another country.

That aside, I’d love to tell you that the rest of our journey here from Quito was straightforward and incident-free. But would you really believe that?

Drinking champagne

A little champers moment after picking up the van

After picking up the van we spent a fun few days playing house with it and getting everything ready before our departure from the city. We set off at the crack of dawn, headed for the city of Riobamba, about 5 hours south of Quito.

About 4 hours and 45 minutes of that journey were joyous – driving through the Ecuadorian Andes with our new manual gearbox was like night and day compared with the hideous automatic transmission that had, at best, dragged the van kicking and screaming through Colombia’s highlands.

A few blocks from the campsite in Riobamba, we started to notice an ominous burning smell coming from the front of the van. Not good. As we pulled into the campsite and tried to park, Jeremy said: “Paula, I can’t get into any gear.” These are not words I ever want to hear again.

My brain quietly chanted ‘thisisnothappeningthisisnothappeningnothisisnothappening..’.

We popped the bonnet, releasing smoke and an acrid smell coming straight from the gearbox. Happily, after a short cooling period we managed to get into gear again and parked up.

The lovely campsite owner was offering advice about rubbing discs, just needing to regulate them, don’t worry ‘be patient’ you can find a mechanic tomorrow etc, but for the first few minutes it was all just white noise. We were in panic mode.

Non-starter

We were already aware that our clutch cylinder was a bit ropey – the one that arrived with the gearbox conversion kit was defective, and the Quito mechanics had done a fix on it. A new one had been ordered to be sent to us in Peru. We phoned our mechanic in Quito, Lothar, who urged us not to panic, it was probably something to do the cylinder but someone should be able to tweak it for us.

We found a mechanic on Monday morning who, at first, seemed gloomy about being able to access the right area to regulate the discs. “I might have to get another guy in to help me take the gearbox out,” he said. At that point I went for a long walk!

But after a phone conversation with Lothar, he found the way in and tweaked things to stop the discs rubbing.

“I really think this is going to be okay now,” he said. “Take it for a drive for a few hours, to places around the city, and if you smell burning again, come back tomorrow and we’ll look again.”

Van stopped at church

Nice church, not so nice that the van won’t start…

Hesitantly, we set off and drove to a little village about 30km away. No problems. We pulled in at a little church and had a look around. “Things feels good, let’s head on further,” said Jeremy.

We went back to the van. I turned the key. Click click, nothing. It was completely dead. This is NOT happening, I said. Probably the battery, we said. We called over a local family visiting the church and asked them to jump start us. Sure, they said. Click click, nothing.

“It’s not the battery, must be something else,” they said. They offered to come back with a mechanic in a hour.

It felt like a long hour in the hot sun. Really, were we ever going to get out of Ecuador?!

The mechanic arrived. “Oh” he said, “this car is gasoline, but I’m a diesel mechanic, sorry.” I made a growling sound. He started to have a fiddle around anyway, and declared it was “something electrical”.

“Let’s try push-starting it,” he said. Exciting, we thought – we couldn’t have done that with an automatic!

We pushed, and it sprang to life. Hurrah! They drove us to a car electrician in the city. “He’s the best,” they said, “if he can’t sort you out, no one can”. I thought ‘please don’t say that…’

Ten minutes and $5 later, a loose cable was re-connected and we were off!

So far so routine, but our still-raw paranoia about breaking down meant that every set-back felt like a disaster in the moment.

We flopped into our chairs back at the campsite – what a day.

Next morning we decided to head off with confidence, and drive south for a few hours to see how we felt. It was a beautiful, and calm, drive to the gorgeous railway town of Alausí. We were still like a couple of meerkats, popping our heads up at every perceived noise or smell, but all was well.

We explored the little town, which is sliced in half by Ecuador’s famous highland railway line. Brightly painted houses and a pristine square make it seem almost like a life-sized version of a model railway village. We ate chicken soup in the market, then decided to push on. Alausí’s steep streets were the perfect test for the gearbox, which coped admirably.

That afternoon we had one of those lucky finds – with no plan of where we might sleep, we happened across a slightly unpromising-looking sign for a ‘pueblo turistico’. We drove down a steep track, which ended at a new restaurant and little trail leading to an incredible mirador overlooking the famous engineering feat that is the ‘Devil’s Nose’ – a series of steep railway switchbacks cutting across the mountain before descending to a little station in the middle of nowhere.

Devil's Nose (Nariz del Diablo)

We camped above the mirador overlooking the famous Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo).

They had the perfect sheltered car park for us to camp in, and to top things off a train appeared just as we were climbing down the trail to look at the railway. We got some incredible views before the clouds started swirling through the valley and settled eerily for the night.

With no charge for the camping we decided to support this fabulous community project by buying a meal in the restaurant, which had a chef who’d worked in London for 10 years – it was $3 for a three-course dinner!

We drank our morning tea at the mirador the next morning, and really felt like we were on the road again. As we left the pueblo, we picked up a series of locals who were hitching between villages on our route – it’s an accepted way to get around and we never want to seem like grumpy gringos who just travel in a bubble of our own.

We started to hear a worrying clunking noise – it sounded like an innocuous banging of metal, but I refer you to my earlier comments about paranoia. We pulled in to get it checked out – just a broken screw on the metal guard under the van, which has been in and out like a jack-in-the-box over the last year. Keep calm and carry on!

Things continued to go smoothly. It felt like a major milestone to get to the southern city of Cuenca – our last major stop before the border, a place where we’d already spent a lot of time, and where we’d meet our friend Jess again before (hopefully) leaving Ecuador for good.

We camped in a great city farm and had a good night out in town and then brunch at the van with Jess the next day. She seems to have suffered every stage of the van saga along with us, so it was really special to be able to have her round for a cuppa, to see for herself that the van was back and really did exist.

We did some final planning and set off for the border at first light on Friday. It was by far the most nerve-wracking day of our trip so far, for reasons we’ll write about later.

That evening we pulled into a sublime beach campsite in northern Peru, as a red-hot sun was dropping from the sky in the way that is so synonymous with the Pacific coast – we were happy, relieved, adrenaline-fuelled and ready for a drink.

For the next few weeks we’ll hang out in hammocks, sort out the remaining loose ends with the van, go off wandering and sit out the chaos that is Semana Santa (Easter) in Latin America.

But mostly we’ll just enjoy being back home.

Days: 918
Miles: 18,121
Things we now know to be true: Panicking is unhelpful.

—–

A FEW MORE PICS FROM OUR EVENTFUL WEEK:-

 

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

The little things in life

30 Jan
Mini crate of beer

Anyone fancy a wee cerveza? (With thanks to Ana ‘Anita’ Cossio for the use of her fingers)

Jupapina, La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

I was a bit of a geek for miniatures when I was younger. While others had cool bedrooms crammed with music posters, Pacman games (yes, it was the 80s) and normal teenage paraphernalia, my shelves were lined with tiny little versions of just about anything I could get my hands on. I’d like to say I’d grown up since then…

… but when we heard there was a festival of miniatures in La Paz, I could hardly contain myself. We were there like a shot. We oohed and awwed at all the little things, took a zillion photos and watched aghast as half of La Paz almost stampeded a bunch of Catholic priests in the cathedral.

Not only was I in heaven but I was getting paid for it, as the BBC and MSN Travel had commissioned me to write articles on the festival. Double bonus.

So I’ve been busy writing quite a lot about Alasitas in the last few days. Rather than create another account of the fabulous first day of the festival, I’ve lazily inserted my BBC article into this post. There are also a few more photos below, some of which were included in the MSN Travel slideshow.

The point of Alasitas is that you buy mini versions of all the things you want to come true in the coming year. You may or may not be wondering if we bought anything. It probably goes without saying what was at the top of our shopping list….

Van hopes

A representation of our van is blessed by a shaman. Worth a shot, no?

—–

BBC News Magazine, 30 January 2014

‘Alasitas: Bolivia’s festival of miniatures’

Bolivia’s Alasitas festival is a bizarre buying frenzy that mixes ancient traditions and beliefs with modern-day religion and consumerism. Thousands turn out to buy everything they want in the coming year, in miniature form, in the hope that the gods will convert their dreams into life-sized reality.

Imagine you could go to the market, buy everything you wanted in the year ahead for just a few dollars and carry it all home in one plastic bag. It might be a new house, a car, a husband or wife, or even a divorce. Or perhaps a suitcase stuffed with cash, a degree from a top university, a new job, a shiny laptop or all the food you can eat?

This is exactly what happens at the Alasitas festival, which runs for a month in La Paz, Bolivia. Everyone is buying small, and dreaming big.

On day one artisans and street vendors fill the plazas and line the pavements throughout the city, loudly hawking tiny wares ranging from finely-crafted miniatures to plastic toy versions of the real thing.

Smoking Ekeko

Ekeko is partial to a cigarette.

Everything bought is blessed by priests before being offered to a chubby cigarette-puffing Andean god, Ekeko.

Ekeko – the god of abundance – is the key to whether these desires will become reality, many believe. True followers will keep a statue in their home, offering him their miniatures along with a lit cigarette and a few prayers

“When you really believe in it, it becomes real,” says Ana Cossio, 24, an NGO worker from La Paz. “My mum bought me a little marriage certificate at Alasitas. A month later I found out I was pregnant and was married later that year.”

In the city’s Plaza Murillo, teeny suitcases stuffed with piles of mini dollars, bolivianos and euros are stacked on tables. Some even come complete with a full travel package – little cardboard credit cards, passport, airline tickets and visas.

Vendors shout over each other to be heard: “Dollars and euros here! Money, money!”

Shoppers swap real cash for piles of fake money, which is later exchanged with friends, family or strangers in the street, in an act of reciprocity that is ingrained in Andean culture.

They also part with small amounts of cash for mobile phones, computers, flat-screen TVs, DIY tools and every brand of car, truck and minibus imaginable – all in diminutive form. Baby vegetables, tiny sacks of flour and rice, crates of beer and stacks of matchbox-sized supermarket brands are being bought up by the thousands as the festival gets under way.

Miniature houses, office buildings and shops are carefully examined as people browse for their perfect design. Those planning to build their own can buy a mini plot of land, complete with all the building materials they need – tiny bricks, bags of cement, wheelbarrows and spades.

Little wedding dresses

Elvira Quisbert, 85, sells little wedding gowns to hopeful brides.

Even all the daily newspapers are printed at a quarter of their normal size, carrying spoof stories about the government and the news of the day.

While money and material goods are hugely popular, Alasitas is also about searching for luck in life – be that in love, work or simply an abundance of food for the family. Ceramic cockerels and hens are bought and exchanged to help friends and loved ones find a partner.

And thousands of little fake certificates are printed and sold – including marriage and divorce documents, degrees, driving licences and professional qualifications.

Brother and sister Rita and Jorge Llanque Torrez are having their purchases blessed by an Andean priest on the steps of La Paz’s main cathedral. Jorge wants a new job in education planning, so has bought himself a ‘certificate of work’, while his sister has high hopes for her teenage daughter.

“I live in Barcelona but my daughter is here in Bolivia. I have bought a visa and passport for her so she can get her papers and come to Spain too. It’s the second year I have bought them for her…” says Rita.

Celebrated in La Paz every January, Alasitas has its origins in an indigenous Aymara harvest festival in which farmers prayed for bountiful crops. Opinions vary as to how and when Ekeko emerged in his modern-day form, but historians say that the concept of exchange and the offering of miniatures to a god of abundance date back to the pre-Inca Tiwanaku culture of Bolivia.

Over the centuries, economic, religious and cultural influences have seen Alasitas transform almost beyond recognition.

A vivid illustration of the blending of traditional indigenous beliefs and Spanish Catholicism happens at midday on day one – the hour when people rush to have their purchases blessed.

“There is an almighty crush. A few broken little houses lie trampled underfoot.”

 On the steps of the city’s main cathedral, Andean priests – called amautas or yatiris – chant incantations amid a cloud of incense emanating from little coal burners at their feet.

They offer 96%-proof alcohol to pachamama – mother earth – by sprinkling it on the ground, and wave bags of shopping and handfuls of fake money over the smoke.

But for many people this is not quite enough. They might have faith in the power of Ekeko, but they believe strongly in their Christian god too.

At 11:55am there is a sudden surge towards the entrance of the cathedral. People are carried with the crowd towards the altar, and a gentle hum of voices rises to a roar as the clock approaches noon. There are so many people in the church that the Catholic priests have to bring in extra help. Several of them stand on plinths as the throng pushes towards them, holding their purchases aloft.

“Padre! Padre! Over here!” they shout, frantically waving fistfuls of miniatures and cash. In an attempt to rapidly bless as many things as possible the priests dip bunches of flowers in holy water flinging it over the crowd in great arcs.

Cathedral frenzy

Priests blessed people’s Alasitas purchases by lobbing holy water over everything within reach.

“It’s not very Catholic,” says Ana Cossio. “I think the priests allow it because they can’t control it.”

As the first wave tries to exit the cathedral there is an almighty crush. A few broken little houses lie trampled underfoot.

The crowd is somehow expelled from the church into the packed plaza, where hundreds of people are shopping and eating. While opening day is the most chaotic and frenzied of the festival, this cycle of spending, exchanging and hoping goes on for a month.

Alasitas is at once a frivolous, serious and, at times, contradictory fixture of the Bolivian calendar. Modern day scenes of flashing wads of cash at a priest may barely resemble a traditional harvest festival, but it could be seen as a window on the shifting desires of a nation that is rapidly changing and developing, while proudly holding on to its traditional culture.

ALASITAS: A BRIEF HISTORY

  • Indigenous Aymara event originally called Chhalasita before Spanish colonial times – involved simple exchange of basic goods. The Spanish changed the name from its original meaning of ‘exchange me’ to ‘buy me’.
  • Evolved to adopt elements of Catholicism and Western desire to accumulate material wealth.
  • In 1781 the date was changed to 24 January, to commemorate an indigenous uprising and to give thanks to Catholic saint Nuestra Senora de La Paz for protecting the city – some say this is when modern-day Ekeko made his appearance, with many believing he helped save the city from hunger during the siege
  • Alasitas purchases can also be seen as statements of intent or goal-setting for the year ahead.

—–

Days: 850
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 8,569
Things we now know to be true: Small is beautiful.

—–

MORE PHOTOS IN THE SLIDESHOW BELOW..

Rock ‘n roll nights

15 Nov
Colourful Valparaiso

Multi-coloured  Valparaiso.

Jupapina, nr Mallasa, Bolivia
[by Paula]

We spent a day trying to decide where to go for the last portion of my brother’s visit. We could still make it to Peru for some trekking? Maybe pop over to Argentina?

After Derek left, Jeremy I were either going to be scooting back up north to Ecuador to collect our van (remember the van?), or heading directly to Bolivia to begin a voluntary work placement we’d set up, which meant the most illogical thing to do would be to head south again.

So that’s exactly what we did.

Let’s hire another car, we said, and drive south to Santiago – it’s only 1,670 kilometres (1,012 miles) each way!

We were getting to know this Atacama Desert road pretty well. A bit under-prepared on the provisions, we pulled into a little roadside posada for dinner before pushing on for our second visit to Pan de Azucar national park. We pitched our tents as the sun set behind the island, then settled in for a night of, well, not very much. So disorganised had we been that we only had one can of beer and a handful of sweets for entertainment. But it’s amazing what you can do with nothing. We trawled the site for wood, lit a fire and shared the can. Rock ‘n roll!

Setting up camp, Pan de Azucar national park, Chile.

Setting up at sunset, Pan de Azucar national park, Chile.

Then Derek did his best Bear Grylls impersonation and showed us you can boil water in a paper (yes, paper) cup on the fire. Most exciting cup of coffee I’ve ever had! If we can make a cuppa from nothing, we can survive anything.

We left early the next morning and pulled into Chañaral for one of Chile’s best any-time-of-the-day snacks, a hulking great steak and avocado sandwich. Happy 14th wedding anniversary to us!

Another long day of driving, and several gas station coffees later, we made it well south of La Serena and into new territory for Jeremy and me. We had high hopes for a campsite called Termas de Socos, which reportedly had natural hot thermal waters. We pulled into an empty, very locked, campsite. Bugger. We took our unwashed, rather unpleasant looking, selves into the very posh hotel next door to ask if they could help. They phoned the campsite owner who came down and opened it for us – an entire, massive campsite to ourselves! The ‘thermal pool’ was empty but the bonus was that the owner also ran a restaurant just up the road.

Campfire night

Anniversary campfire! Termas de Socos, Chile.

We pitched the tents and headed straight up there for a totally delicious – and cheap – dinner of roasted goat and ribs with the most orgasmic mashed potato in history.

Back at the tents, Derek went into full pyromaniac mode with the campfire, and we willingly colluded. The music was cranked up, and the more we drank the more outrageous the fire got. Luckily no one was around to hear the singing.

On our wedding day I’m not sure what we thought we’d be doing 14 years hence, but it probably wasn’t that.

Next morning we found the perfect antidote to a hangover and a few days without a shower. The very posh hotel next door rented out natural hot baths – bingo! We each got an individual room with a huge bath and unlimited hot water. Ahhhhhhh.

Three squeaky clean, slightly wrinkled, bodies climbed back into the car and headed for Valparaiso. We were amazed we easily found our B&B in the city’s crooked, windy, unbelievably steep streets. From our room we had a fantastic view over the bay.

We spent three nights in this kooky, artsy city which is part grimy and edgy, part pretty and funky. One of the most remarkable things about it is that seemingly the entire city has been, willingly, given over to graffiti art, murals and brightly painted buildings, which makes for some great aimless street-wandering.

Derek and I took the ascensor (while Jeremy took his vertigo for a steep walk) up to the Cerros Concepcion and Alegre district, where we shopped, then ate the thickest seafood chowder known to man.

We visited the late, uber-famous, Chilean poet/activist/politician Pablo Neruda’s fabulous home and mooched round the city’s ornate cemetery.

Having not quite adjusted to Chile’s late night culture (band starts at midnight, what?!) we heroically managed to prop our eyelids open to watch some sublime live music – the mesmerising, accordion-wielding, gypsy-jazz-salsa singer Pascuala Ilabaca and her band Fauna.

Mercado Central, Santiago

Fish galore at the Mercado Central, Santiago.

Derek’s final stop in Santiago was brief, but not too brief to visit the famous Mercado Central, a vast and chaotic emporium of fish sellers and fish restaurants. We sampled a few dishes – king fish, eel and merluza – while watching several of Santiago’s upper echelons order king crabs at well over US$100 a go. The waiters delivered them with a flourish, as everyone watched and took photos, which was presumably the reaction they were hoping for! We left enough of a gap before scoffing ceviche and one of the best tres leches cakes ever encountered, at bar The Clinic – the official bar of Chile’s political magazine of the same name.

The following day was a repeat of That Horrible Goodbye, as Derek took off back to Scotland and his wife Fiona and kids Skye and Finn – who had kindly loaned him to us for a while. Hasta luego hermano!

We’d been hoping we could dash back to Ecuador, collect the van, and make it (almost) on time to Bolivia, for the work project we’d organised. But while the mechanic had managed to source and install a manual gearbox in the van, there was still an issue with the computer understanding what the heck was going on, and a part had been ordered from Germany to try to resolve it.

We didn’t see the point in going back to Ecuador to wait around, when we had something great lined up in Bolivia, so we decided to head straight there and worry about the van once it was fully repaired.

First we had to return the hire car in Calama. We bombed it back up north in a long two days. The journey included an epic search for somewhere to camp or lodge near Antofagasta, on the coast. All campsites turned out to be closed or too rough-looking to contemplate. We searched nearby coastal ‘resorts’ which turned out to be more of those creepy half-abandoned encampments we’d seen before. When we enquired about camping or staying in cabins were told everything was ‘closed for maintenance’.

All lodgings in the town of Mejillones were booked out with miners – we almost got desperate enough to ask in a dire-looking dosshouse. But one look at the way the plastic ‘garden’ furniture was chained to the fence outside gave us pause to reconsider.

Car bed

Sometimes there’s nothing else for it but to give up and wind back the driver’s seat.

We found a posh hotel a few miles away, parked on the edge of their property and slept in the car. Oh what crusties we have become.

Things got creepier the next day when we took a different route up the coast and, in the early morning fog, came across a baby cemetery right on the beach. A huge area was filled with Victorian-style wooden cribs, most of which had cuddly toys tied to them. Some of the graves were 100+ years old, but most of the toys were quite new. There are some great things about Chile’s northern coast, but some of it is just damn weird.

We headed on to Calama, and delivered the car before setting up camp for a couple of nights to sort ourselves out and prepare for our big project in Bolivia, where we hoped to stay for up to six months.

After that we’d resume the trip south towards Argentina, but for now, the next chapter awaited.

Days: 772
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 7,259
Things we now know to be true: You can boil water over a fire using a paper cup. Honestly.

PHOTO GALLERY BELOW!

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.

Illegal aliens

7 Jul

DSC_0730

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

As of midnight tonight we will be – for the first time in our lives – so-called illegal aliens. We should be in Peru by now, but we are still in Ecuador, and have exceeded the 90-day time limits on both our tourist visas and car permit.

Unlike most other Latin American countries, those permits are not at all easy to extend and the rules are very strict. Until Thursday we really thought we were going to make it out of Ecuador in time – albeit in a last minute scramble – but found out that night that it wasn’t going to be possible because our van is still not repaired.

This is the first time I’ve written a blog post and then had to scrap it and start again, such has been the constantly-changing situation over the last few days. For weeks we have repeatedly been brought to the brink of getting back on the road, then hopes have been dashed.

Paula, en route to Cotopaxi

Has someone got hold of the other end? A mini rock-climb during an acclimatisation stop en route to Cotopaxi.

A friend said this week that our van seems to have a “flair for the dramatic”, and she’s spot on.

Tomorrow we will try to make a direct appeal to the head of migration services, and if we can’t resolve the situation we will be fined $350 for every day the car overstays its permit. Meanwhile the car sits partially disemboweled at the mechanic’s workshop – yesterday, for the third time, the transmission was removed and dismantled as they try to work out why it is burning up every time they fix and test-drive it.

It has been at the workshop for nearly 12 weeks now – why on earth is it all taking so long? It’s been an unbelievable saga of waiting for three separate batches of parts from the USA, plus delays, cock-ups, puzzles, procrastination and bad luck.

And that 90-day time-limit clock has really been ticking since we last blogged. At that time we were facing a third major delay and we made plans to ensure we’d see all that we wanted in Ecuador before we had to leave.

Since then we’ve been blown away by some of the most dramatic sights we’ve seen since we arrived, with the incredible wildlife of Isla de la Plata – the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ – and our pièce de résistance, Volcan Cotopaxi.

In both cases we enjoyed some incredible good-luck antidotes to what had seemed like a an unhealthy dose of bad vibes with the van.

After hearing of the latest delay while we were staying in an apartment in Cuenca, we decided that while we waited nothing could be more calming that heading out to the coast and searching for some boobies. The blue-footed booby is a bird that’s not only about the funniest, cutest thing you can ever hope to see, but has a name that makes it impossible not to make hilarious juvenile jokes at every opportunity.

Here’s a little taster of what we saw on the island.

From Puerto Lopez we took a boat to Isla de la Plata and set off on a little trail to spot the boobies, as well as ‘magnificent frigate birds’ with their unfeasibly large red inflatable throats. We’d heard the boobies were a guaranteed, easy spot but still couldn’t believe it when we saw the first couple. They were just hanging around on the path, so unperturbed that we had to walk around them. And it’s not a joke, they really do have very blue feet! They posed for photos, positioning their webbed flippers like little ballerinas and showing off with the occasional arabesque. Totally enchanting.

Further down the path we encountered trees and skies full of frigate birds, the males competing with each other to see who could most impressively balloon out their red throats to attract the females. Men, eh? They can never just rely on their scintillating personalities but have to wave appendages around to get attention.

After a chilly but successful snorkelling session some huge marine turtles came to visit our boat – another first for us – just before we set off back towards the mainland. It was the cusp of whale-watching season, and we were slightly hopeful of spotting a humpback en route. Expectations were low though, mostly because our record on coinciding with whale season is so abysmal it has become a bit of a standing joke.

Humpback whale, Ecuador

Somersault! Humpback whale, off Isla de la Plata, Ecuador

So we were really excited when we saw some huge fins flapping out of the water, followed by a glimpse of a humpback’s body on the surface. We were just congratulating ourselves on a great day, when the whale breached – a full-on flip out of the water in what felt like slow motion. Every boat passenger’s mouth was frozen into an ‘O’ for what seemed like ages. Somehow my arm took on a life of its own for a few nanoseconds and snapped a fuzzy photo without me even being aware of it.

We were beside ourselves – although we’d have loved to have afforded a trip to the Galapagos Islands, we felt really chuffed about what we’d seen for a mere $30.

We returned to Cuenca for a final weekend, which coincided with a local music festival and a rather drunken evening with Jess, a British teacher we’d met a few times while there. It was great to have a pal for a short while at least – thanks Jess.

It was time to head back towards Quito, to await the arrival of the latest parts and actually get the work done on the van – rebuilding the transmission, new shock absorbers and suspension repairs.

“Everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not yet the end.”

On the way back north we diverted to Latacunga, to plan a side trip to one of the most famous volcanoes in the world – Cotopaxi. The weather is very mixed at this time of year in Ecuador, which is just coming into the dry season in the mountains. We’d been dreaming of a perfect view of snow-capped Cotopaxi for ages, but knew that at that altitude you can be blanketed in clouds at a moment’s notice.

Without the van to camp in, staying at Cotopaxi’s hostels and lodges is a relatively expensive affair – we agonised over the cost but decided to splurge on a lodge with a choice location and view of the volcano. We didn’t regret it. It was a fantastically cosy adobe building with a huge log fire, squashy sofas and large glasses to fill with red wine. A wood fire was also lit every evening in our little cabin, which had a face-on view of Cotopaxi from the loft bedroom. We decided to take a guided walk to the glacier line of the volcano the next morning and get a close up.

That evening the clouds not only filled the sky but dropped right down to ground level. It was like someone had pulled the blackout curtains. Uh-oh, we thought.

Then we woke up to this.

Cotopaxi from our bedroom

Hello morning! The view of Cotopaxi from our cabin window.

We took 150 photos before breakfast, just in case the clouds came scudding in.

But there followed hours of unbroken sunshine and azure skies, which remained until we’d driven through the luminous landscapes of the paramo to 4,500m, hiked to a ‘refuge’ building at 4,800m for a hot chocolate and cake break, and then onto the glacier at over 5,000m (about 16,500ft).

It was intense – at that height every step on the soft volcanic ash and rock was a lung-buster, but we did it and were pleased to have kept up with the three 20-year-olds we were hiking with! Not bad for a couple of oldies. To be standing on the glacier felt… well, we were on the top of the world, as you can imagine.

Jeremy reaches the glacier, Cotopaxi

Made it! Cotopaxi’s glacier is at 5,000m.

We couldn’t believe our luck, it had been more than we’d wished for, and we were pretty adrenaline-charged until we suddenly dropped like stones into bed that evening.

We travelled back to Quito and rented an apartment for another week. With bated breath, we called the mechanic to get the latest. The parts were there, the transmission was rebuilt at the weekend, and testing would begin soon, he said. So far so good.

It was a nail-biting week, which ultimately ended with the mechanic hitting another big problem and us missing our deadline. We spent two days trying to navigate the resulting bureaucracy, to no avail as yet.

This latest hitch could stretch into weeks – fortunately Jeremy has just been commissioned to do a big project, something which will take both of us working on it to complete it on time. It will both occupy us while we wait and bring in some much-needed funds to the coffers.

But first, tomorrow we’ll do all we can to make ourselves legal again. And what is Plan B, I hear you ask? And of course we have one – we’re thinking we might apply for political asylum.

Days: 605
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not yet the end.”
[Cheesy line borrowed from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel]

CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO OPEN THE GALLERY AS A SLIDESHOW.

Not pigs, not from Guinea… but they are tasty

13 Jun
Roasting cuy, Gualaceo, Ecuador

Making sure the skin doesn’t burst, roasting cuy (guinea pigs) at the market, Gualaceo, Ecuador.

Cuenca, Ecuador
[by Paula]

Just because we’ve been stopped for a while doesn’t mean we don’t keep learning things – oh no. The trajectory of our learning curve keeps speeding ahead in one direction.

Here’s a few things from the last few weeks: 1. If you are baking at high altitude, you have to adjust the ingredients to compensate. 2. If you stay still long enough, you find stuff out – like which local shops are willing to break the law and sell you alcohol on a Sunday. 3. If you eat guinea pigs you will upset your friends’ children. 4. If you expect your car to be fixed by a given date, you must add on at least a week, maybe two, or more. And on a related point… 4a. When you get really angry, you forget every word of Spanish you ever learned, not least the word for “angry”.

Cajas National Park, Ecuador

Cajas National Park – like being transported to bonnie Scotland for a day.

We’d decided to travel 9 hours south from Quito and explore another part of Ecuador while we waited for our van parts to arrive from the US, and rented an apartment in the gorgeous town of Cuenca. It’s been a great base for exploring the surrounding area, like the Inca ruins of Ingapirca and Sunday markets in nearby villages. We hiked at the spectacular Cajas National Park, which – at a bracing 4,000m (13,000ft+) – was weirdly evocative of the mist-shrouded mountains and lochs of Scotland. At times we would look around and wonder if we’d been teleported back home while we weren’t paying attention.

Having an apartment does run the risk of becoming spoiled – what with all these luxuries like a proper bed, consistently hot shower, oven, brick walls, toilet, that kind of thing. We’ve also enjoyed wandering Cuenca’s bars and cafes, meeting people, and generally behaving like folk who live somewhere.

Roasted cuy, Ecuador

Guinea pig, as served to us at the restaurant.

We’ve been using the time to do a little work too. Which brings me on to those cuddly rodents. While here we took the opportunity to go out and finally try one of Ecuador’s specialities, the roasted guinea pig (cuy). This week I wrote a feature about our culinary experience, and a bit of the history behind it all, for the BBC News website. While researching I discovered one of my favourite facts – that guinea pigs are neither pigs, nor from Guinea. Mainly for reasons of abject laziness, I have re-printed the article in full below.

Now, the BBC is – rightly – a sensitive soul and it doesn’t like to go around gratuitously upsetting its readers. For that reason they felt forced to omit my description of the roasted guinea pig’s liver flopping out onto the plate and (ex-vegetarian) Jeremy grabbing the first bite. They also felt unable to use some of the more graphic photos of impaled guinea pigs being roasted over an open fire at the market.

We have no such high standards of taste and decency, but I will say this – the photo gallery below might not be one for the kids.

Days: 581
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: One man’s meat is another man’s poison (or pet).

———

BBC article below, or click here to go to the feature on BBC Magazine.

Could I bring myself to eat a guinea pig?
By Paula Dear
Cuenca, Ecuador

Eating roasted or fried guinea pig is an ancient tradition in parts of South America, and still common today. But in other parts of the world the rodents are cherished as cuddly, fluffy pals for children. How do you make the mental leap from cute pet to delicious meal?

As a committed carnivore I’m not in the habit of attaching personalities to the meat on my plate.
But this was a guinea pig, with four legs, a face and endearingly prominent front teeth. I used to have one as a pet.

My husband Jeremy and I were in a restaurant in southern Ecuador, where guinea pigs are regularly served up with potatoes and corn, and have been for thousands of years. Peru, Bolivia and parts of Colombia also do so.

We’d seen them being cultivated in a small rural home in Colombia, and impaled on thick rods before being roasted en masse in an Ecuadorian market. Eating traditional foods is a large part of the travel experience, so there was no way we would pass through the region without sampling this dish.
The roasted guinea pig – called cuy in South America – was brought to our table whole before being chopped into five pieces – four leg portions and the head.

I considered Jet, the tufty black guinea pig who was my first pet. He was forever getting lost and his antics were the subject of a story written by eight-year-old me, which won a local writing competition. That he died in the care of friends while we were on holiday – overwhelmed by the car fumes in their garage – was one of those dramatic childhood turning points that I never really got over. Could I move on?

The reaction from some of our friends on social media to our planned meal suggested cuy-eating might not become popular any time soon in Europe, where guinea pigs have been loved as pets since traders introduced them in the 16th Century.

When British TV presenter Philip Schofield tweeted about eating a guinea pig in Peru last year, he was criticised online and in newspapers, including a Daily Mail story with the headline: “TV presenter blasted for boasting about scoffing ‘pet’.” It quoted Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler as saying: “This callous provocation is despicable.”

Guinea pig for sale, Otavalo

A woman brandishes one of many guinea pigs she has for sale, animal market, Otavalo, Ecuador.

Briton Christopher Breen, who owns restaurant Cafe Eucalyptus in Cuenca, Ecuador, and serves guinea pig tikka masala, says there is little chance of his compatriots adding the animal to their weekly shop.

“Cuy catching on in the UK? I don’t think so,” he says.

It’s a line that many who are well-integrated into Ecuadorian society refuse to cross. Gary Sisk, 64, from California, retired to Cuenca 18 months ago and has otherwise embraced the local culture, but says he has no intention of eating a guinea pig.

“When I first noticed cuy roasting in the market I was kind of shocked because of course we had them for pets as kids,” he says.

“My Ecuadorian friend is always putting one in the cart when we go shopping. Of course they laugh at my reaction when I see one, because they have eaten them all their lives.”

There have been small-scale exports of the delicacy to the US, Japan and some parts of Europe – often at the behest of the Latin American diaspora – but consumption levels are unlikely to reach those of Peru, for example, where an estimated 65 million guinea pigs are eaten annually. Far higher quantities of chicken are eaten – more than 500 million per year – but guinea pig remains preferred for special occasions.

It’s in Peru that archaeologists report guinea pigs were first domesticated as a food source as early as 5,000 BC, prized for their high protein levels and – although the fat content is relatively low – as a source of fat.

They later became an integral part of religious ceremonies and folk medicine. To this day they are often the centre of local festivals, which are considered to be incomplete without cuyes.
Their significance in Andean society is famously acknowledged in Peruvian-influenced depictions of Christ’s Last Supper, in Lima and Cusco.

“The marinade and slow roasting process, involving regular basting, had given it a tasty crackling-like skin.”

But it’s not all about the past. Cuy is still a popular animal to cultivate in rural and urban homes for eating on special occasions or – as they fetch a relatively high price – selling in markets or to shops. Larger-scale production also exists, often focusing on restaurants and the small export market.

Indeed, some argue animals like this could be the future. Guinea pigs reproduce fast, taking up very little space and efficiently processing their simple diet of grass and vegetable scraps.
Raising cattle is a drain on resources, they point out. By comparison, guinea pig, squirrel, and other rodents are “low-impact protein sources”.

Matt Miller, a science writer for the US-based Nature Conservancy, is writing a book about the benefits of eating “unconventional” meats.

“Many animals that some consider ‘bizarre’ or ‘unconventional’ make a lot more sense – ecologically, economically, personally – to eat than modern, industrial meat,” he says.
Miller focuses on a number of rodents that are “abundant and can be sustainably harvested”, like squirrels, capybaras – the world’s largest rodent, also eaten in Venezuela – and guinea pigs.

He concedes the “cultural aversion” to eating animals like guinea pigs is “huge” in many countries. Could those who have only ever seen guinea pigs as companions ever make that leap?

Miller adds: “It’s not going to replace beef. But diets can and do change over time. I grew up hunting and eating squirrel – many rural Americans still do. There is a growing interest in many countries in food diversity, so I don’t think the idea of eating guinea pigs is completely hopeless.”

Back at the restaurant, we wondered who would take the first bite.

Jeremy was a vegetarian for 27 years until 2010, but has approached meat-eating with the scary zeal of a convert.

He grabbed the first piece. Delicious. The marinade and slow roasting process, involving regular basting, had given it a tasty crackling-like skin, while the dark gamey meat was rich and oily, not unlike rabbit.

Guilt tinged my enjoyment a little – just a little. I drew the line at tackling the head – popular with locals – while the ex-vegetarian devoured it.

—–

GUINEA PIG FACTSGuinea pig for sale, Otavalo, Ecuador

  • Also referred to – often by breeders – as cavies, taken from the Latin name for the group of rodents to which they belong, caviidae
  • They are neither pigs, nor from Guinea
  • Extensively used – with significant results – as a model organism for medical research in the 19th and 20th Centuries, resulting in the phrase “guinea pig” for a test subject
  • Queen Elizabeth I owned a pet guinea pig
  • An excited guinea pig will repeatedly hop into the air, behaviour known as “popcorning”
  • —–

    PREHISTORIC PLATTER

  • Sometime during the Pre-ceramic period (prior 2000 BC) of Peruvian pre-history the guinea pig was domesticated as a food source, with first appearances possibly as early as 5000 BC in the Altiplano of southern Peru and Bolivia
  • Due to its high fertility and ease of maintenance it was, along with seafood, the most important source of protein in the prehistoric Peruvian diet
  • Later in pre-Hispanic times, the cavy [so called from its Latin name, cavia porcellus] was also widely used in religious ceremonies, divination and curing rituals
  • Since other animals belonged to the state, the common person only had the cavy as a dependable meat source
  • The Incas raised guinea pigs in large numbers to eat at their fiestas. One dish is known of cavy and capsicum pepper in which smooth pebbles were placed in the stomach cavity to facilitate the roasting of the animal
  • It also had a major part to play as a sacrificial animal. Annually, 1,000 white cavies were sacrificed in [Peru’s] Cuzco public square to placate the gods and prevent them from damaging crops.
  • Source: The Cavy and South American Civilization, Jonathan Trigg MA, Dept of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

    ——-

    AND NOW IT’S TIME… FOR THE GALLERY. Click on any image to open in slideshow format.

    Big boys do cry

    21 May

    Laguna Quilotoa

    Laguna Quilotoa, Ecuador


    Quito, Ecuador
    [by Jeremy]

    It’s often said to be an endearing quality in a man to be able to show emotion, to be able to shed a tear. It’s not quite so endearing when the man in question is on all fours, clinging to a rock and blubbing uncontrollably.

    I am that man.

    Before setting out on what was to turn out to be one of the best – and when I say best, I really mean both best and worst – treks of our entire trip, we asked our fellow overlanders Thomas and Sabine what the hike around the Quilotoa volcanic lake was like. “It’s fine they said, a little narrow in parts”.

    I’m not sure what it was that possessed them to forget to mention the 1000ft sheer cliffs dropping straight in to the lake that, legend has it, is so deep it has no bottom. That’s the problem with people who don’t suffer from vertigo – no sense of impending doom!

    Tears and tantrums aside, the hike from our base in Chugchilán to Quilotoa was stunning, the views incredible and the experience – well, an experience.

    Hike to Quilotoa

    See that threadlike, impossibly narrow path going up the side of the valley? That was the easy bit.

    It all started so well – a steep hour-long hike down almost 1000m in to the depths of an amazing canyon. It was at this point we realised why most hikers did the trek in reverse. What goes down must go up – or something like that. In front of us was five hours of continuous up from the valley floor.

    With burning knees, and gasping for breath at 3,500m, we reached our first summit – the village of Guayama. Incredible views down in to the canyon, to the volcanoes and mountains surrounding us in every direction and back to the precipitous path we had just climbed were a just reward.

    At least that’s the worst part over we reassured ourselves. Oh yeah? From there we climbed gently to the foot of the final ascent. It’s one of those that doesn’t look too steep when you are gazing at it from a distance. Close up it looked monstrous. With the sun burning down, the air thinning and our limbs growing ever more weary we climbed and climbed to the lip of the volcano.

    At least that’s the worst part over, we reassured ourselves. Oh yeah? As we reached the lip of the crater we were confronted with – depending on your level of vertigo – the most astonishing view of Quilotoa, an awe-inspiring sight or a terrifying path to certain death.

    “The rational part of my brain appeared to have gone on its own trek somewhere far away.”

    My natural reaction when confronted with such terror is to cling on to rock, often grazing my face and hands in the process as I physically try to climb inside the rock face – and to stop the spinning, I find getting on all fours helps. It’s not a great look.

    Normally this lasts for a while before Paula can connect with the rational part of my brain and persuade me that I can do it. And I do.

    Maybe it was the thinness of the air, or the tiredness, but the rational part of my brain appeared to have gone on its own trek somewhere far away from here. Seconds of frozen inaction became minutes and minutes became an hour. Despite my protestations there was no way we could head back the way we’d come before dark – or physically manage it – so, rationally, I decided we could just sleep out in the open, at 3800m, in the freezing cold and rain. Well, it seemed rational to me.

    It was only the chance arrival of some other trekkers and a local guide who persuaded us we could make the last part. Frankly, the guide just lied to me about how the last part wasn’t so bad.

    Reaching Quilotoa

    Relief that we’ve almost reached the end – but still not relaxed enough to stop hugging the rock.

    As we edged along the crater rim even I had to admit the views were out of this world. I even relaxed enough to enjoy them! An hour later we arrived at the village of Quilotoa, found a lovely hostel with a log fire in the room, ate, drank and were merry.

    We awoke to a beautiful sunrise, and were greeted not only by stunning views of the emerald green lake far below but also by grazing llamas as we hiked down to sit at the lakeside – pure tranquility. After a few more wobbly-kneed moments climbing back up to the rim we rested our aching limbs enjoying a coffee in the town square while waiting for the bus back to Chugchilán. You didn’t think we were going to hike back did you?

    At least that’s the worst part over, we reassured ourselves. Oh yeah?
    The moment the bus set off in the midst of a swirling mountain storm and the local passengers began crossing themselves, we knew we were in for a bumpy ride. The dirt road began to turn in to a stream in parts, a quagmire in others. After a terrifying 15 minutes slipping and sliding along the side of the mountain we finally came unstuck. Less unstuck, perhaps, than stuck. As the bus slid backwards towards the edge of the cliff and the passengers screamed, we became firmly lodged in deep, deep mud. As everyone disembarked and diggers helped to get the bus moving again we joined a group of locals who, in sheeting mountain rain, walked past the next couple of nerve-jangling corners and rejoined the bus where the road looked less likely just to plunge in to the canyon.

    It’s one thing when I’m irrational about falling over a cliff, but when Paula heads to the front of the bus and sits at the open door so she can jump off before we go over the edge, I know I’m being rational. An hour, several bitten fingernails and a couple of near-death experiences later, as we round a corner, the bus gets stuck again. This time it looks pretty final (as we find out a few hours later, when they finally get the bus out of its hole, this happens pretty much every day). Just a couple of kilometres short of our destination we decide to cut our losses and walk the final stretch.

    Over a cold beer and warm dinner we relive our last 48 hours. And like all such tales, in our recounting the fear diminishes, our bravery grows until in the end the tears, the tantrums, the terror are just footnotes in an otherwise spectacular hiking experience. The scars are emotional – except for a couple of grazed hands – but the memories are among the best of the whole trip so far. It’s funny how these things work out.

    Leaving Quilotoa we head back to Quito to pick up the van which has had its new fuel injector put in.

    View over Quito

    Quito’s not a bad place to be stuck for a while.

    At least that’s the worst part over, we reassured ourselves. Oh yeah?

    As we arrive at the mechanics, expecting to drive away, our van is being pushed in to the workshop. What!? Several days and a good deal of stress later we get the dreaded news that part of our rebuilt transmission is buggered.

    The mechanics are baffled as to how an 11-month-old transmission could break. Our complaint to VW has been duly filed – we’ll let you know what compensation they decide to offer us….

    As ever when big things go wrong with your vehicle on a road trip you start to think the worst, get upset, make all kinds of alternative plans and generally go in to a bit of a panic. We did all of the above. Before we knew it we were sat having afternoon tea with an elderly ‘colonial’ British couple, agreeing to look after their five dogs and sprawling finca on the outskirts of Quito for five months, and I had applied for a job as a football reporter in Ecuador.

    In the cold light of day, the house-sitting plans didn’t work out – sadly we couldn’t co-ordinate our dates and the news on the transmission, bad though it was, was not as catastrophic as first feared. We could get the spare parts, sort it out and be back on the road almost within our planned schedule. So we have rented an apartment in Quito and set about enjoying life in a city we have come to really love – oh, and doing some freelance journalism to pay for the parts.

    Route planning

    Setbacks often mean a bit of a change of plan…

    At least that’s the worst part over, we are reassuring ourselves.

    The silver lining in all of this is that we realise our journey is not one straight line (and not just because we get lost a lot) or just one adventure but a whole series of different adventures and experiences and if we have to stop for a while, have to get local jobs, have to change our plans we are ready, willing and able to do it.

    After we’ve had a little panic, obviously.

    Days: 558
    Miles: 17,551
    Things we now know to be true: “To want to tackle everything rationally is irrational.” [Ilyas Kassam – writer]

    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.

    ‘Bad news sells’ shocker

    19 May

    Estelí, Nicaragua
    [by Jeremy]

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

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

    View from our Esteli apartment during a rainstorm

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

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

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

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

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

    Surely not what they were looking for.

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

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

    Jeremy sampling the wares, cigar-making factory, Esteli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Swimming in Somoto Canyon, northern Nicaragua

    Floating along in the Somoto Canyon, northern Nicaragua.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Shipping forecast

    3 May

    Managua, Nicaragua
    [by Paula]

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

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

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

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

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

    Cocktails for moi, Che for Jez.

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

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

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

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

    The four girls in NY

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

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

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

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

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

    Here are some pics from our recent trips:

    Havana, May Day 2012 – on Flickr

    New York – on Flickr

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

    Patience is a virtue?

    18 Apr

    PD, Los Naranjos, Honduras

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

    But I’ve never been into writing fiction.

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

    The van in position to be pushed onto the truck

    Ready, steady, heave!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Van being tied down onto truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Van on the truck

    On our way...

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Typical Central American breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Breakdown

    5 Apr

    PD, Copan Ruinas, Honduras

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

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

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

    Stranded van at the scrapyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We climbed inside and drank a lot of rum.

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

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

    Scrapyard guard dog Molly

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Elvin and family

    Elvin and his family have been looking out for us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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