Border Hinderers

Stress

As many overlanders know, there are people who attempt to assist you across the border in exchange for a few bucks. In Honduras, Tom and I decided that border helper was not an appropriate title, we renamed them border hinderers. Trying to scam every foreign person they could set their sights on, these border hinderers worked in tandem with the official border agents trying to trick people into purchasing unnecessary documents. Luckily, we follow Life Remotely’s blog for each border crossing so we know exactly what we need and don’t need.

When we pulled up to the border, a large group of men surrounded the car claiming to be officials. Clearly they were not, as they were dressed in t-shirts and shorts or jeans. It is very overwhelming when strange men surround your car, telling you that you need certain documents for outrageous amounts of money and they claim they can help you get them for a cheaper amount (even though you don’t actually need the documents in the first place).

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Before every border crossing, Tom and I take a moment to say no matter how frustrating things get, we will clearly communicate with one another… yet in the heat of the day (too hot to roll up the windows), with 20 scary men surrounding your car, a conversation that should go like this:
Brooke, “I don’t think we need these documents.”
Tom “No, we don’t. These men are clearly trying to scam us.”
Brooke “I see.”
Tom “Let’s roll up our windows for a few minutes so they leave us alone.”
Brooke “Wonderful plan, my love.”
Tom “Not as wonderful as you”

Generally turns into this:
Brooke “WHY ARE YOU STOPPING IN THE CENTER OF 20 SCARY MEN!”
Tom “THEY MAY BE OFFICIALS. SH** THEY AREN’T. “
Brooke “KEEP DRIVING, KEEP DRIVING!”
Tom, “I CAN’T WITHOUT RUNNING THEM OVER!”
Brooke “ROLL UP THE WINDOWS AND STOP TALKING TO THEM!”
Tom “I CANT! IT IS TOO HOT AND WE WOULD DIE OF HEAT EXHAUSTION!”
Brooke “AHHHH!”
Tom “AHHHH!”
Hydro “BARK!”
Lika (Quietly sneaking into her dog food since everyone is clearly preoccupied).

Take the latter conversation and multiply that by a power outage at the crossing resulting in 6 hours of heat induced, stressful conversations, while trying to get the 20 scary men to leave us alone. On top of that, I was instructed to get into a vehicle to go to their version of the Agricultural Office to get the dog’s certifications ready. Tom sees me jump into an unofficial Toyota pickup, without official plates with a semi-official looking woman driving down the highway out of sight for nearly an hour… Tom was beginning to rethink this whole trip as he stood there wondering what was going to become of his fiancé.

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After the entire ordeal ended, we couldn’t find a hotel to park in that allowed dogs, so we once again parked in a quarry. The following day, as we were driving towards the Nicaraguan border, we saw a beautiful part of Honduras. Disappointed in ourselves for not spending more time to see the true Honduras as we had to be in Costa Rica for the wedding, we crossed the border to Nicaragua.

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El Salvador

El Salvador, the land of… of the perfect exchange rate… the US dollar. After spending so much time calculating the exchange rate for each purchase in each country, we arrived in El Salvador where we no longer had to be humbled by our obtuse math skills.

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Besides the easy exchange rate, Tom was thrilled that we finally returned to the beach after a month long hiatus in Guatemala. The first few nights we stayed inland at a beautiful ranch with lots of trees, animals, and cool weather. The next week we spent our time at the beach and enjoyed sun and a great point break. We spent a lot of time surfing, gorging ourselves with local pupusas, and learning the art of dominoes from a couple of guys staying at the hostel.

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Lika had her own adventure. While Hydro generally stays right by our side, Lika is a bit more free spirited. She has a tendency to wander, but always finds her way back to either us or the VW. I generally tend to get extremely stressed every time this happens. One day while we were in Sunzal, Lika was right next to us and then, of course, she was gone. I looked at Tommy and informed him that I wasn’t going to freak out like I always do since she always returns unscathed. Tommy was happy to hear the news since he is the one who usually has to calm my fears. About 5 seconds after this conversation we heard a noise and we couldn’t quite tell if it was a bird or the far off cry of Lika. We started frantically searching for her and after 3 or 4 minutes found her in a well… “What’s that girl? You fell in a well and the barns on fire?!” She fell into a water storage shed that she couldn’t climb out of due to the surrounding 6 foot walls. She was forced to swim around until someone came to her rescue. Let’s just say that she tends to stick by us more regularly since this little episode.

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We eventually had to head to San Salvador to conduct presentations and training where we found a lovely room near the embassy. The hotel was a block away from the embassy, so I walked over for the presentation. The presentation went wonderfully and the embassy staff was fantastic. As I was leaving, they asked where my driver was. I informed them that I walked there from a hotel located a block away. They were all shocked, claiming that San Salvador tied Honduras for the title of murder capital of the world. In my defense, the only thing I walked pass on my way to the embassy was a Starbucks and another hotel. I was curious, however, why every building had a guard with a fully automatic shotgun… I guess this cured my curiosity.

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Upon returning to the hotel, I saw Tommy and the dogs sitting on the curb. “Why are you sitting on the curb?” I asked him inquiringly. “We were promptly kicked out as soon as you left … when they saw the dogs,“ he replied with a bead of sweat dripping from his brow after being forced to sit on the curb near the dangers of the Starbucks parking lot awaiting my return.

We decided to drive back the 40 minutes to Sunzal, a place where we were accepted, to enjoy one last round of dominoes. A few days later, we made our way to Southern El Salvador. After driving hours on a long dirt road, we pulled off onto the beach and found a great place to camp for a few nights. Hydro and Lika were thrilled to have another beach entirely to themselves and ecstatic about the crabs. After spending hours running around chasing said crabs and other sea creatures they immediately passed out in the van from exhaustion.

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The tranquility of our camp spot perched on hillside overlooking the ocean was unsurpassed. Whenever we find camp spots like this we basically have to tear ourselves away, full knowing that finding free, wild camping in Central America is beyond challenging. Nevertheless, the road awaited and the Mothership was off, ready for her next adventure.

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Guatemala- Part Deuce

Driving from Semuc Champey

Driving from Semuc Champey

We said good bye to Semuc Champey and headed toward Lake Atitlan… this was no easy feat. As mentioned in our previous blog, the roads of Guatemala are extremely rough. After driving for nearly five hours, I couldn’t stand the bumps and the car sickness any longer… I figured I had two options; I could take over driving or have the most fun out of everyone. I chose the latter and instructed Tom to pull the car over. I pulled my mountain bike off the back of the car and raced down the mountain, wind in my hair, bugs in my teeth, passing the overlanders!

Sometimes it's just better to ride!

Sometimes it’s just better to ride!

That evening after taking turns biking down the mountain, we finally found our way back to a paved road and decided to camp in a quarry. It was large enough to fit all three vehicles. Of course, all the locals were very curious and came out to see who the weird gringos were parked in their backyard. Once again the generosity of the Guatemalans was only surpassed by the beauty of the landscape. Cute Kids The locals checking us out IMG_2705 IMG_2720 Please take notice of the tallest two people in the group A Beautiful Evening After another day of driving we pulled into Coban. We found a city park for all three vehicles and called it a night. The next day, we found a welding shop and Tom was able to weld the oil pan to create a better fix for our leak. Unfortunately, the pan still sweat a bit of oil, but it was much better than its previous condition. All the while I was working hard reading Game of Thrones.

Rounding Up the Wagons

Rounding up the wagons

Working Hard & Hardly Working

Working hard & hardly working

After yet more driving, we finally made it to Lake Atitlan, a place I have always wanted to go. We spent a day driving through various touristy towns, before we came upon San Lucas. San Lucas was not remarkably beautiful, but it was traditional and lacked the overabundance of tourism that some of the other towns seemed consumed by. We spent the evening exploring the food stalls and the next morning wandering around the markets. P1030181 IMG_2734 IMG_2748 In search of the beauty that we were certain existed in Lake Atitlan, we made our way to San Marcus, a gorgeous town on the lake with views of the nearby volcanoes. Calling it beautiful would be an understatement. The town seems to draw holistic health practitioners and several folks who seem to participate in more liberal health practices. I was beyond excited. Talk about a residential vehicle! As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the purposes of this trip is to seek out a more balanced and healthy lifestyle. Word on the street was that there was a Cacao shaman who conducted twice weekly meditation ceremonies. Tom decided to stay back since his meditative time is in nature away from large groups of people while Kelly, Beefy, and I headed over. The Cacao Shaman, an ex-gringo from the states, gave everyone a large glass of cacao grown on the nearby hillside. It was a stimulant meant to help achieve a meditative state. The meditation process was good. It was interesting to watch everyone with their differing ways of meditation… some laughed, some cried, some did both… While it was an interesting experience, I decided that I would probably continue to meditate on my own. Delicious! We celebrated New Years in that beautiful town, still in the company of Sylvan and Nadia. We discovered amazing street food tostados that were comparable to Mexico’s food and gorged ourselves with them! Of course, the boys decided to set off fireworks over the lake and we all played with sparklers.

Celebrate!

Celebrate!

P1030210 Come 11:30 we were all beat. I was feeling especially old for being tired at 11:30 on New Year’s Eve… I am only 28! Then I felt better when Kelly and Beefy were also exhausted … they are 23. As we were climbing into our vehicles a middle aged couple came walking down the street and completely called us out for going to bed before midnight! Attempting to clutch whatever pride we could salvage, we all wandered back out to prove we were young and vivacious.

Tom and I had to head toward Antigua for work, and Kelly and Beefy decided to stay behind for Spanish lessons. Sad to miss the opportunity for Spanish lessons, Tom and I decided to take some lessons in Colombia. Sylvan, Nadia, Tom and I set off with Volcan Papaya in our sites. I had a few days to kill before work and we decided to backpack one of the largest volcanoes in Guatemala. We set off on foot around 4 pm and hiked until 9 pm. We found an abandoned structure, rolled out our sleeping bags, made some food and tried to get some sleep while Hydro and Lika stood guard.

The long trek...

The long trek…

Silvan y Nadia

Silvan y Nadia

The next morning we woke before the sunrise to try and make it to the top before the guides came. The guides won’t let folks hike to the very top while they are there, so we had to get an early start. Sylvan and Nadia, being hard core Swiss mountaineers, decided to hike off the trail and scramble up the side of the volcano. Tom and I, not being nearly as cool, stuck to the trail and took the long way to the top. By the time we reached the summit, clouds were hugging the mountain top, impeding on the view. For a split second the clouds would open up so we could snap a quick photo.

Please notice Hydro's lack of enthusiasm whie Lika's ears are being nearly blown a way

Please notice Hydro’s lack of enthusiasm while Lika’s ears are being nearly blown away.

After the volcano hike, we said hasta luego to Sylvan and Nadia and headed towards Antigua. We tried renting a nice place to stay while I was working, but couldn’t find any place that was nice on our budget, so we camped in the tourist police lot. There were showers, security, and several other overlanders present. It is actually in the remains of an old hospital that was destroyed in one of Antigua’s earthquakes. Antigua is an adorable colonial town and I enjoyed spending some time there. I presented to a small group of Americans and locals at a nearby church. The pastor gave me a tour of their charitable program. They provide people with the materials to build basic homes and many US citizens wanting to volunteer come down and build these houses for several folks in the more rural areas of Guatemala. IMG_2789 IMG_2785 Directly after Antigua, we raced to Guatemala City to present to the embassy and another local group. Having saved money on the campground in Antigua, we decided to really splurge in Guatemala City. We stayed at a beautiful boutique hotel that used to be a mansion. Most people say there is nothing to enjoy in Guatemala City, but I loved it. Besides working at the embassy, you couldn’t get me out of that adorable hotel. Tommy had taken to calling me the hotel troll. Finally I had to release my grasp from the gorgeous hotel as Tommy, Hydro, Lika and I headed towards the border, sorry to leave such a fascinating country. Guatemala is amazing and we will return. IMG_2792

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Guatemala, Part 1

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After crossing into Guatemala from Belize, the anticipation of celebrating the end of the world (the end of the Mayan calendar) was only matched by the anticipation of meeting up with my sister who was driving down to celebrate with us. Bursting with excitement as we entered Guatemala, Tommy and I instantly noticed that Guatemala was as beautiful, if not more beautiful, than Belize, and only half as expensive. With so many vibrant colors swirling around the culture, from dress to produce, we couldn’t help but realize we were in a special place. The first evening, we drove to Las Flores to stock up on supplies and ended up stealth camping on the beautiful, albeit touristy island.

The next day we backtracked towards the Mayan ruins, Tikal. Since dogs were not allowed in the park we stayed nearby in the village of El Remate. The beauty of the lake that embraced the main part of town was beyond words. We set up camp next to said lake and waited for the arrival of my sister, Kelly, and her travel companions, the aspiring botanist, Beefy, and Skeeter the dog.
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After connecting with Kelly, having unlimited card tournaments, and catching up on everything we had missed from back home, we outlined our plans for the Mayan celebration. At 3am the morning of, we drove into Tikal to watch the sunrise ceremony. The ruins were magnificent and the ceremonies were beautiful. We climbed to the top of a very tall pyramid and settled in to take in all the sites. After the sun rose, we wandered around the park in awe of the amazing beauty that surrounded us. We also happened to stumble across our friends, Sylvan and Nadia, who Tom and I met in Puerto Escondido. Around 3pm, we were all tired except for Tommy. All of us headed back to camp besides Tom, who happened upon a semi-private Mayan women’s ceremony.
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During the women’s ceremony, a beautiful fox came towards the group. This is considered a good omen and the Mayan women and Tommy were all thrilled. While the purpose of the women’s ceremony was to thank the universe for all it provided, Tommy was able to connect to the feminine side within himself and nature. He came back to camp wanting a cheese and wine date with possible pedicures.
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The next day, Kelly, Beefy, Sylvan, Nadia, Tom and I set out to reach Semuc Champey. Our caravan of overlanders attracted ample attention in the more remote areas of Guatemala. Not realizing just how bad the road conditions were going to be, we didn’t even come close to making it to Semuc Champey in one day. We pulled off on a dirt road with the hopes of discovering some privacy for all three vehicles, and only found small indigenous villages. The folks in the towns did not speak Spanish, they spoke their traditional language. (Much like Chiapas, Mexico, over 60% of people in Guatemala don’t actually speak Spanish, they speak their native language). Nadia had to draw pictures to ask if it was alright to camp in their village. After consulting with their chief, the townspeople welcomed us and allowed us to park in what looked like someone’s back yard. We “rounded up the wagons” and settled in for the evening.

The next day, we awoke to several curious people staring at us and our vehicles. We discovered that we were actually parked behind a cardamom drying hut. They grew cardamom on the hillside and sold it at local markets. The owner of the hut allowed us in and taught us about the cardamom drying process. Of course, each of us bought cardamom off this man, and we were all so grateful to have the opportunity to experience the beautiful culture of this village.
While the guys were pulling out seeds from the cardamom, Kelly, Nadia, and I wandered over to the nearby group of women. They spoke close to zero Spanish, so once again verbal communication was limited. Although we couldn’t converse with language, we were able to communicate with pantomime and body language. We snapped this shot of all the women together right before we left.
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Although saddened to leave the village, we went on our merry way towards Semuc Champey. Nearly 60% of the roads in Guatemala are rough, dirt roads. This was no problem for our 4wd vehicle… or so we thought. We bypassed putting on the skid plate before leaving the US. Probably not the best call. As we drove towards Semuc, we hit a rock against our oil pan causing an oil leak. Luckily, Tommy had ‘The Rightstuff’… no not New Kids on the Block, but something even better- silicone used for engine gaskets. He was able to create a temporary fix with the help of Sylvan and Nadia who gave us plenty of oil to replenish what we lost.
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Semuc Champey is a river beneath a river, one of the many gems of Guatemala. Having arrived just in time for Christmas, we all once again “rounded the wagons” and explored the beautiful pools. We celebrated Christmas with what little we had, putting out stockings, etc. Kelly surprised Tom and I with a slew of beautiful wedding and Christmas gifts and we made our step-mom’s traditional chile relleno dish that was very quickly devoured.
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SCHydro's MonkeysGuatemala, Part Two Coming Soon!

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Belize, Baby!

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After we begrudgingly saw Mexico fade away in our rear view mirror, we headed south into Belize. Belize is a country whose beauty is only matched by its price tag. Tom and I stayed a week in Belize, but financially spent a good quarter of what we spent during our two months in Mexico. We started our journey in Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary; a beautiful reserve with crocodiles, monkeys, and nearly 200 species of birds. Tom and I camped for 2 nights in a gorgeous field, spending our days kayaking, hiking, and we even went on our first official birding tour. It was simply wonderful. The only other time we had gone “birding” was in Kenya for my sister’s wedding, but we were far more interested in the lions and other fabulous safari creatures than the birds… much to the birders dismay. This time around, having few distractions helped us to get far more excited about the birds.

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After Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, we headed towards Belmopan. On our way we stopped at the Belize Zoo, a conservation institute where they help injured animals and reintroduce them to the wild. We saw some amazing animals at this zoo, including my favorite… the Harpy Eagle. A beautiful creature, ¾’s my size. She was stunning. She truly seemed like an animal from Lord of the Rings. She was born into captivity and after they had tried to release her to the wild, she kept flying back to the zoo.

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After the Zoo, we found our way to the outskirts of Belmopan where we rented a room for 2 nights so that I could prepare my work. The place we stayed was surrounded by gorgeous waterfalls, old Mayan ruins, and a huge river. We would spend the mornings exploring our surroundings, hiking, and swimming. Lika continues to have the time of her life swimming everywhere we stop, especially this place.

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I presented at the George Price Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Belmopan. We had a smaller turn out, but a very effective presentation/meeting none-the-less. Belize is plagued with domestic violence and many people are looking for resources and tools to serve families affected by violence. They have just started a huge awareness program in Belize that will hopefully also lead to prevention.

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After the presentation, Tom and I headed towards the Caribbean Coast. We stopped at yet another beautiful cave. You are only allowed to hike into the caves for about a ½ mile without a guide. Of course, Tom and I wanted to explore even further. We kept saying a few more feet, a few more feet until we were deep into the cave. It was really awesome. Tommy wanted to go even further, but I chickened out, envisioning Tommy and I stuck deep in a cave… The batteries of our headlamp slowly fading out… No food… No water… You get the picture. Anyways, I turned back and Tom followed in suit pouting the whole way.

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When we arrived on the coast, we decided to explore a town called Hopkins. We camped next to an awesome hippy lady living in a school bus selling natural bug repellent for an outrages price. It happened to be her birthday. Tom and I brought over a beer to share with her since it was her birthday and we were in a friendly mood. We chatted with her for a few hours and learned about her adventures south.

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While in Hopkins we went scuba diving. We heard scuba diving in the Cayes was supposed to be some of the best diving in the world. We were happy to say we were not disappointed. We saw amazing fish, coral life, huge lobsters, conch shells and a gigantic turtle. The turtle was missing a fin, most likely from a shark attack, but was still cruising around the ocean just fine.
After diving, we tried some traditional Belizean Garfundi cuisine, Hudut. A pan fried fish, served in a bowl of spicy coconut gravy sauce. Albeit heavy, this dish was divine.

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Next we headed towards San Ignacio. Our campground was beautiful and the owner grew delicious fruit trees and shared some star fruit and other local fruits with us. There were spider monkeys jumping through the trees and a huge river running through the back. Tom was able to enjoy more Belizian “fast food,” Salbutes. Salbutes are a deep fried, puffed tortilla, with a variety of different ingredients served on top. They were fatty, yet delicious.

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Our short visit in Belize was a lot of fun. While Tommy and I were both sad to leave, we were also excited about the end of the Mayan calendar and our upcoming visit to Guatemala!

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The Heart of Mexico

After leaving the beautiful Pacific coast, we headed inland to experience the culture, landscapes, and the food! First stop on the inland destination list was Oaxaca. After hearing mixed reviews about the city, we decided to go check it out for ourselves. We were a little hesitant after reading our friend’s Brad & Sheena’s bolg: http://www.drivenachodrive.com/2012/02/oaxaca-pilgrimage/ and another blog from 30 for Thirty: http://30forthirty.org/2012/11/12/the-tale-of-cuatro-gringros-and-the-oaxacan-curse/ a blog on the travelers curse in Oaxaca.  We spent the first day exploring the tourist market and then, after prices proved too high for a couple of vagabonds, we explored the markets for the locals. You most certainly could get lost for hours in the local markets. A hodgepodge of fruit, meat, and livestock venders awaited us, as well as several trinket venders. Tom had fantastic tacos for about 5 pesos each.

After spending the day getting lost in the markets, we decided to look for a good place to park for the evening. After trying several hostels and hotels, we realized that there were no parking spots in front of any of the accommodations. We decided to stealth camp in the middle of the city. We basically just found a flat spot to park and didn’t pop our top or do much to make it obvious that two people and two dogs were actually sleeping in the van. Taking the dogs out to relieve themselves proved to be a bit of a challenge, but it was free. After settling into our van, we were just about to make our bed while laughing that the Oaxaca curse didn’t affect us when Tommy used too much strength to move the surf boards and CRACK! He accidentally cracked the side of the wind shield… so much for no curse. Luckily the crack is all the way on the side of the passenger seat and doesn’t affect either driver or passenger views.

The next day we visited our first ruins of the trip. They weren’t Mayan, but they were equally as magnificent. After walking around the ruins, we did some meditation and tried to soak up the beauty.  It was a bit hard not to think of the movie Apocalyptic and envision heads rolling down the steps while hiking around. Thanks Baja Ferry for playing that movie at 8 a.m. during breakfast when we crossed from Baja to the mainland a few months earlier… Either way it was beautiful.

Meditation on the ruins

Ruins

That night we decided to forego stealth camping and camped in the city park. The city park is actually on top a very steep hill so we were elevated on top of the beautiful Oaxaca. We had many visitors, including a handful of cops, come by and check out our vehicle. Camping, let alone car camping, is a bit of an anomaly in Mexico.

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We decided to explore the mountainous park via bicycle. We had a ton of fun riding around taking in the mountain flora and breathtaking city views, until I fell into a cactus. Luckily I was wearing gloves, although it still hurt.

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That day also happened to be Thanksgiving. We thought about trying to find an expat store to get some cranberry sauce and other Thanksgiving goodies, but then we decided to get Tacos instead. This was the first day I was homesick… a bit nostalgic for family and friends… but then I realized I was in Mexico on the best adventure ever!

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From Oaxaca we ventured into nearby villages. We visited the largest living tree in the world.  We went on a mescal tour and learned the secrets to making the infamous wormed drink. They let you taste all sorts of mescal to get you good and drunk so you get buzzed and decide to buy at least a couple of bottles before you leave. Great marketing strategy! On top of that you are buzzed enough to try a fried cricket…an Oaxaca specialty. They were very crunchy and salty. For those of you coming to the wedding, we are serving them as an appetizer.

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Our next stop was the indigenous villages where they are known for weaving beautiful rugs. We decided to splurge and get one for the van. I am not sure we would have purchased it if it weren’t for the lingering effects of the mescal.

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From the beautiful indigenous towns, we drove off the beaten path up into the mountains. We found a miradora (view point) and camped. There was a huge foot bridge connecting mountain tops. Although hesitant, the four of us slowly crossed the bridge. That evening we witnessed a glorious hail storm. We put the rug on the wood floor for warmth, comfort, and insulation, grabbed a warm beverage and spent the evening listening to the storm.

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The next few days we spent driving and camping in beautiful places on our way to San Cristobal, including caves, waterfalls, and swimming holes. When we pulled up to the turn off for the caves, the road was blocked. (Mom: don’t read this part). We were in an area of Chiapas that was somewhat known for their violence so we didn’t want to park next to the main road, yet we didn’t seem to have any options except for one of us to walk the half mile down the barred off road searching for guards to unlock the gate. I decided I would walk down and search for someone while Tommy protected the car. After hiking for about 5 minutes with Hydro at my side, I came up to a little house. Next thing I know 5 or 6 men were walking towards me with very large machetes at their side. I discreetly placed my hand on my pepper spray and didn’t discourage Hydro from growling. After summoning up the courage, I explained in my best Spanish that we needed someplace to camp for the evening and we were hoping we could camp in front of the caves. The men all smiled and said it would be fine….whoo. They unlocked the gate and Tommy drove the car down.

The guards were instructing us where to park our car, when all of a sudden I felt excruciating pain around my ankles and up my calves. The guard was trying to figure out what I was doing when his flashlight dropped to the ground and we saw millions of ants on the ground.  Luckily we weren’t standing in the heart of the pile, but the 30 or 40 bites that Tommy and I each endured were painful enough.  The caves proved to be worth all the trouble. The next morning we hiked into them and were taken aback by their beauty.

Cave

San Cristobal is a beautiful, hippy town in Chiapas, Mexico.  We camped in a cool park on the outskirts of town where we met a cool group of folks from LA, Mexico, and Australia making a film on the end of the Mayan calendar.  We spent a couple of days here riding our bikes into town, making friends, and counting the number of hippy mamas we saw (1 in 10 women were pregnant, hippy expats).

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Agua Azul was next on the list; gorgeous blue waterfalls and swimming holes. You could walk for around 4 miles and barely get to the top of the waterfall set. Tommy, Lika, and I played in the water for hours while Hydro sat comfortable and dry on shore.

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Getting into the mindset of the end of the Mayan calendar, we decided to venture to a couple of Mayan ruins- Tonin and Palenque. We wandered around their gorgeous ruins and loved exploring the internal pathways and staircases.

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We spent our last few days in Mexico outside of a town called Chetumal. The name of the camp was called Gringo Dave’s. The site was situated on a beautiful lagoon.  Hydro and Lika loved the grassy space. Dave was beyond kind. He took Tom and me out to try delicious food. It was the best food we had tasted in Mexico.  We went three nights in a row.  The food was basically cooked and served in a small family’s home and it was fabulous! Tommy celebrated his birthday at Gringo Dave’s and in addition to spending the day kayaking with me and the pups, the folks in the restaurant on site made him a cheese pie (the closest thing to a cheesecake I could find).

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Tom and I spent a total of 2 and half months in Mexico. We feel like we could have – should have spent a lot more time. Most of the camping was free or close to it; the food was fantastic, the culture beautiful and the surf amazing.

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Our Beautiful Life

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Our Beautiful Life.

“Our beautiful life.” This is what I think every morning when I wake up and peer out the screen door to whatever destination we have recently arrived.  I have traveled to many places, most of which were beyond fabulous, but there is something to be said about traveling in VW that was worked tirelessly on for years with the love of your life and your two favorite doggies.

Generally, after I wake up, I put on the water for yerba mate or tea on our little stove next to the bed. Hydro’s tail starts thumping louder and louder until I reach across the van and scratch his and Lika’s heads.  I go outside and say good morning to the sun and gaze out at the waves.  I judge the size of the waves and plan my day around that. If they are too big for me, that means Tom will head out solo and I will read, write, and study my Spanish. When Tommy gets back in an hour or so, we may further explore our surroundings and walk about or ride our bikes for a few hours. Then, during the heat of the day, we rest on our two person hammock. Generally, Tommy falls asleep and I do an hour of yoga practice and meditation, before we start to think about dinner and possibly meeting up with recently made friends.

If the waves are manageable for a beginner like me, I lather up with sunscreen, grab my Stewie (my surfboard) and walk out into the ocean. Everyone talks about the rush you get when you surf down a wave and how that is what hooks you for life. Since I have only experienced that maybe once or twice, I am going to talk about another rewarding aspect of surfing, the paddle out. Your body temperature is instantly cooled the moment you enter the water. You jump on your board and are able to swim faster than going solo. You watch the movement in the water to try and avoid rip tides. At first, the white water waves pass over your head, which is quite refreshing on those hot days, then, as you get further out, the large waves are constantly threatening to crash overhead and press you down to the ocean floor with all her strength. When this happens, you know you can’t fight it. Mother Nature always wins. You just have to stay calm and wait the handful of seconds it takes for her to loosen her grasp on you. Once you pass the waves, you rest on your board until you are ready to attempt to catch a wave in and then paddle out again.

Not all of our days are filled with biking, surfing, and relaxation. We have our travel days and also my working days, but both of those are fun as well. We took a ferry from La Paz, Baja to Mazatlan on the mainland. Since we hadn’t really spent much money on camping so far, we decided to splurge and get a room for the 16 hour ferry ride. However, besides sleeping, we didn’t really spend much time in the room. We were out on the decks watching huge turtles swim by and dolphins playing in the waves made from the boat.  We met a ton of interesting people as well, including a guy from Germany riding a motorcycle down to Nicaragua, a couple of guys riding their bicycles from Alaska to Argentina, and a group of kids white water kayaking through Mexico. Besides the horrible, violent movies they had playing non-stop in the main parts of the ferry and the dogs being very angry at us for kenneling them for 16 hours, the ferry was quite fun.

From Mazatlan, we headed to San Blas for a few days. It would have been amazing, but it was so hot that we couldn’t even sleep. Our only respite was to be in the ocean (actually I think this is why I have attempted to take up surfing). We befriended several locals and would hang out in the evening on the beach around large bonfires. From San Blas, we headed towards Puerto Vallarta where I had to work for a week. A few years back my brother, Tom and I visited a little town about 40 minutes north of PV called Salulitas, so we decided to go back. Since I was trying to recover from a cold and I needed constant internet access for work that week, we decided to rent a room. All the hotels turned us away due to the dogs. We were almost about to head to PV and try our luck there when we noticed a beautiful casita that was for short term rent. We called and we were in the place not 5 minutes later. This casita was a block from the beach, had a bedroom, a kitchen, and a living room. The best part- there was AC and our own little private pool! It was wonderful.

After tailoring my training materials for Mexico, I met with the US Consulate staff and trained them on violence against women, primarily in the Americans overseas community. Two days later, I presented to the Americans overseas community at the Puerto Vallarta Community Center. We had a great group of people turn up and I can honestly say it was the first time I presented to a group of people drinking margaritas. The human rights and women’s rights activists were incredible people and the Americans that attended were awesome! During the work week, I was also able to submit a funding application for my friend’s nonprofit where I sit on the board. It was a busy week, but it felt great because a). it is my passion doing women/human rights work especially while working for an amazing organization, and b). when everyday feels like the weekend it can be easier to appreciate them after a little work… although Tommy disagrees with this statement.

After PV, we camped for a night here and there in random locations trying to get to our next surf destination. One day, we pulled out to camp just for the night at a place we have never been nor heard about. After driving through an adorable town, we stumbled upon the most breathtaking beach and perched ourselves on the hillside next to it. We ended up staying in this place for almost a weeks’ time. Tom was able to surf daily. There was a big cluster of boulders in one concentrated area on the beach that shielded a beautiful swimming hole from the giant, crashing waves. And there was a beautiful lagoon where the dogs would swim (until we learned there were crocodiles!). We made friends with an old expat that would bring us fresh fruit and update us on the news since we couldn’t get internet or cell service and with another expat who started a conservation project a few miles away.

Lika and Hydro loved this beach, especially the crabs. There was an abundance of crabs in the area and the doggies would spend the days chasing them, only to be pinched on the nose by said crabs. That would momentarily stop them, but they resumed the chase immediately. We have never seen Hydro so intrigued by any other creature (except for dead cows, but that is another story for another day). He would spend hours running around just to get a better look at them.

We got our first flat of the trip here; luckily it was a bike flat. We had decided to ride to town and to another nearby beach. When we left our camp the sun was shining and the weather was perfect. Once we were as far as we could go, thunder clouds appeared overhead and instantaneously began to downpour. At that exact moment, my bike tire went flat. Oh, the irony. We tried to seek shelter under a nearby tree and realized that we were already soaked to our undies even while wearing trash bags as make-shift ponchos so we decided to walk the 5 miles back to camp in the pouring rain.

The most amazing thing about the place was the turtles that lay their eggs there nearly nightly. We were going for a moonlit stroll down the beach one evening and we saw a HUGE turtle slowly climbing up the beach. We quickly turned back so as not to scare the turtle and were so delighted about what we had just witnessed. A local surf school collects all the eggs in the morning and puts them in a fenced area to protect them from poachers.  Apparently, some folks steal turtle eggs to provide their families with protein as they can’t afford to get it elsewhere. It is a sad predicament, but turtles are endangered and need protection.

The day before the Day of the Dead, we headed a little bit south and stayed at campsite right next to a graveyard (directly across from a crocodile sanctuary). Some may consider this morbid, but the Day of the Dead is all about honoring loved ones that had passed. The graveyard was covered in flowers, shrines, and lit candles. Early morning on the day of the dead, families trek to gravesites and basically honor and remember the ones who have passed. We went to a celebration in the town square where folks had their faces painted like skeletons and deathly things. Someone was selling these amazing Day of the Dead dolls- a pair of bride and groom skeleton dolls  that I wanted to get for our wedding decorations, but Tommy thought the morbidity of that may be beyond humor for some… huh, no fun.

As we headed south, we decided to turn down another road leading to the beach. We were in the middle of nowhere and drove down to the beach. We thought driving into deep sand would bear no consequences… we were stuck instantly. The tires had dug themselves a hole so deep that the car was just resting on its frame. All of this occurred while the approaching high tide was slowly creeping toward us. Although we were in the middle of nowhere, Tommy asked me to see if I can find anyone to help while he desperately attempted to dig the car out. While I was gone, Tommy thought we were in deep…sand. Then he heard a loud mechanical roar and thought, “it’s a plane, a helicopter, no it’s superwoman!” It was me standing on the side of a large 4-wheel drive backhoe tractor in my best super woman pose while singing the tune of what I thought was the superman theme song* and the tractor driver laughing at the pathetic gringos. He got us out in about 10 minutes.

*I was actually singing Jobe’s magic song from Arrested Development.

Our next destination is one of my top three favorites. It is the little town of Nexpa; a small surfing community that is quaint and clean, and apparently has one of the longest lefts in the world. We enjoyed watching the election from here and listening to a very heated debate between a couple of expat guys well into their 60’s. Voting overseas is a pain, but each time I’ve voted from abroad the outcome is generally in my favor. We are very excited about this outcome!

I had a great time attempting to paddle out (it takes about 30 minutes) and with Tommy’s help, I caught my first large wave all the way back to the beach (though apparently I surfed right and it was breaking left), oh well. Tom went out when the waves were 3 times as tall as he was and surfed like a champ while I sat comfortably under a palapa with some newly made friends drinking Limonada. The people in this town were simply amazing and from around the globe. We made friends with Oregonians, Canadians, Aussies, Brazilians, South Africans, Mexicans, and many more. It was very hard for us to leave this gorgeous place surrounded by rolling green hills with an abundance of rivers and streams. However, we have to be in Belize in December for work so we had to keep moving.  That is until we once again got stuck in the sand. Luckily there were people nearby to help us push the MotherShip out.

This morning I am sitting at my outdoor table in my $4.99 Fred Meyer camp chair, eating leftover homemade vegetarian pozole verde and drinking sun tea while Tommy surfs. We are at a place called the Ranch, a deserted little beach lined with gorgeous trees. I am looking forward to heading inland in a few days, exploring ruins and experiencing more of the beauty of Mexico. I can’t stop thinking, “just look at our beautiful life.”

A blog from Tom: My life basically summarized: eat, surf, get stuck in sand, repeat.

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Baja Adventures

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With the MotherShip ready, we were finally ready for our departure. The night before we left, Tommy and I outlined a few goals for the trip. Not things like eating spicy tacos in Mexico and skiing in Chile (although both are important and we plan on doing these things numerous times), but our true priorities which shape the journey. We came up with the following: inspiration, adventure, health, and freedom. Our goal of the trip is to strive for all four of these things. Judging through this lens, we have decided that the Baja portion of our journey has been efficacious in meeting these goals.

We spent days and nights on the pacific and gulf coasts listening to the waves crash into the shore and the occasional seagull fly overhead with her loud and high pitched song. We surfed the waves while keeping our eyes peeled for the infamous ballanas (whales) migrating south to warmer waters. We were overwhelmed with the beauty of the broken and whole seashells that are scattered around the beach in abundance, while we tapped into our creative sides making mobiles and other crafty things out of said shells that we don’t have much room for in the van. We snorkeled around the calm, turquoise bays of the gulf coast, searching for underwater sea creatures. Then, of course, there is the fresh seafood, paired with lovely produce that we pick up from farms along the way, creating healthy feasts all from unprocessed food that was grown in Baja. The meals were so fresh and delicious that our bodies felt more energized and healthy after eating them.

Then there is the beauty of everything in-between the bodies of water: the agricultural region, the mountainous area, and, my favorite, the Baja desert. The agricultural region was great for fresh produce, the mountainous area provided a bounty of beautiful scenery, but the desert, oh the desert, was the most striking of all the inland beauties.  While Tom and I already knew plenty of the cacti that were there, such as the saguaro, the barrel, and the cholla (which Lika also learned about, more on that later), there were a variety of plants that we had never seen or at least noticed. Our favorite plants were the Boojum Trees; tall and thin like saguaros, but they had a bark-like substance on the outside and were covered with thorns and flowers.

Tom and I spent hours running around the desert taking photos of the fauna and flora. Come sunrise and sunset, the desert turned into a beautiful symphony. Numerous types of birds, each with their different song, harmonizing with the howling of coyotes and far off grunts of wild donkeys created the most spectacular music.

We also found a couple of secret gems in the middle of the desert,  the towns of El Ignacio and Muluge. These towns had rivers running through them so you would drive up to an oasis with water, palm trees, and lush greenery right in the middle of the desert. It was breathtaking. The people in these towns behaved on par with the folks in the other towns we visited in Baja: hospitable, generous, and courteous.

In addition to stimulating all of our senses with the beauty of each place, we had a lot of fun just running around being dorks. Tommy has been an excellent surf instructor and I am becoming more comfortable in the ocean. Thanks to the locals, we have been discovering mountain bike trails and are able to go exploring the mountains overlooking the sea. We are both working on our Spanish skills and I am focusing on verb conjugation.

Tommy and I probably had the most fun in Todos Santos located in Southern Baja. If I didn’t have to work in Puerto Vallarta the following week, we would have stuck around longer. In Todos Santos we immediately befriended some locals at a surf spot and spent the evening with them learning about their lives and sharing a little about ours. As to be expected, we befriended a couple of aging hippies; one a fellow surfer, and the other, a man from Oregon who opened a brewery down here. My favorite expat encounter was with a tiny old woman well into her 70s who drove down 45 years ago, ran out of gas, and decided to never leave.

By pure bad luck (on their part not ours), we met a couple on their first day of their honeymoon. You’ve heard of wedding crashers, Tommy and I have taken it to a whole new level. A small hurricane hit Todos Santos the evening prior to our meeting. The following morning while driving down from our hillside next to the ocean where we had been camping, we happened upon a car stuck in a ditch with water gushing into the windows. We were able to pull them out with the MotherShip and a tow strap. When they opened the doors, water came pouring out. I had never seen anything like that.

This awesome Indiana couple invited us back to their hotel bar for a celebratory shot and it turned into an all-day affair (told you we took wedding crashing to a whole new level). We had a wonderful time with our newly made friends and they may even come crash our wedding in Costa Rica… we are hoping so anyways.

The doggies have been having a good time, too. Lika had to learn the hard way about the Cholla Cactus… twice. We heard howling from the other side of the van and ran over to her. She had cholla stuck in her face and paws. I held her face and calmed her down while Tom had the tedious task of pulling them all out. The next day we saw her next to the van in the same predicament, only this time my Rambo pup was trying to pull them all out on her own.

Before taking this trip we were a little apprehensive about Hydro’s reaction as he isn’t too crazy about long car rides. However, he has ended up loving all the places we go and all the humans and animals he gets to meet. In fact, while Tom and I surf, he runs up and down the beach befriending human and dog alike.

Hydro gets a little confused when it comes to guarding the van. He will bark and growl at little old ladies who pass by, but wag his tail with delight when soldiers carrying large guns pull us over for routine inspection. Indeed, he likes them so much that he has started licking their guns. I really hope he doesn’t form a habit out of this.

I think it’s safe to say, based on the earlier criteria, that the Baja portion of the trip has been successful. We were inspired to learn as much about our surroundings as possible, ate gorgeous, healthy meals, explored all types of landscapes, and had the freedom to just be. We plan to visit Baja again and spend even more time exploring. We were sad to leave, but excited to experience the journey ahead.

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Our Journey Through the Western US or How I Tried to Kill My Mother

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After Tom made the MotherShip mechanically beautiful, we set off on our trial adventure… aka the US portion of our journey. I call it the ‘trial adventure’ because we wanted to be close to modern conveniences and Suburu shops should something go wrong. Luckily, we only had one minor incident (a failed thermostat) during our US journey.

We were happy to explore the Western US from California, Montana, Wyoming- Yellow Stone & the Grand Tetons, Colorado, Arizona, and a weekend on the beach in Mexico. We fit in tons of family, hiking, hot springs, and strolls down memory lane. Tom’s sister, Jill, got married in beautiful Big Sky, Montana. The wedding was gorgeous and the food was great. A fox even joined in the festivities. On our hurried drive to make it to the rehearsal dinner in time, something happened that we never thought possible… we were pulled over for speeding… in the MotherShip. Now most people dread being pulled over, but you have to remember Tom and I couldn’t get pulled over in that vehicle for speeding even if we wanted to. We couldn’t, that is, until we put the Subaru conversion engine into her. The cop who pulled us over first asked why we were going so fast, then asked how we were going so fast. (We weren’t breaking the speed of sound or anything just strolling along at a mere 74 MPH, about 9 MPH over the limit). The cop, who we were certain learned his moves from Reno 911, was so impressed that we were able to accelerate to a speed above 50 in the van let us off the hook. As he walked away Tom and I smiled and gave each other a high five, in part because we didn’t get a ticket, but mainly because we were proud of the MotherShip’s perseverance and ability.

From the wedding we ventured through Yellow Stone and the Grand Tetons. After being in Yellow Stone for 20 minutes we found a boiling river that fell into the Gardner River. Never mind the warning of thermophiles invading your brain and killing you within two weeks, we had to sit under the boiling waterfalls and soak in their beauty. Just for all you worrisome types, three weeks have passed and Tom and I are still alive, so put your worries at ease. The geysers of Yellow Stone were amazing, but we saw far more wildlife in the Grand Tetons. The overall beauty of both places were breathtaking. After an awesome day hiking the Tetons, being visited by deer and other animals, and me nearly losing my voice along the path to announce to bears that we were coming so they wouldn’t have us for a midday snack, Tom and I thought that maybe we could settle down and move to Jackson when all was said and done. We happily held onto this dream until we actually passed through Jackson… the most expensive cowboy town you could ever imagine. Need I say more?

Next on the agenda was visiting my brother in his new home- Boulder, CO. He and his girlfriend have a beautiful home walking distance to nearly everything. We happily visited friends who had moved to the Denver area and explored the wonders of Boulder and the surrounding areas. While visiting family and friends is wonderful and great, the true treasure of our CO visit was our ability to find our smiles at the Carousel of Happiness. The Carousel was handmade by a Vietnam vet who apparently only wanted happiness in his life when he returned from war. I can guarantee you that the carousel animals come to life at night… just look at them.

We had a lot of fun in Boulder visiting with family and friends and were sad to depart. We did pick up a souvenir there, however,… my mother! Tom was so excited. As the mother-in-law suite wasn’t quite finished, Tom slept outside while my mother and I got the comfort of the van… what a guy!

We went for an awesome mountain bike ride in Moab, although my mother claimed we were just trying to kill her. Last time we hung out we took her zip-lining and the time before that it was sea kayaking and so on and so on. She seems to think hanging out with Tommy and I will be her demise.

To make it up to my mother, we decided to drive through Keams Canyon on the Hopi reservation since she and I used to live there when I was a kid. We visited the old house and surprised my old nanny. We hadn’t seen her in over 24 years. It was a wonderful little trip down memory lane. After Keams Canyon, we dropped my mother off in Tucson and raced to the beach house in Mexico. My father and step mom, Edie, met up with us there and we had a wonderful weekend relaxing and enjoying the scenery. Dad made his famous salads and Edie made her awesome potato and egg breakfast…mmm. Needless to say, I put on a little weight on this trip (not from salad and eggs, but from all the delicious meals and my over-indulging).

After our trial adventure, we headed back to Wrightwood for a couple of weeks to make our final improvements on the van. Tommy will write up more on the mechanical aspects of the van preparation. However, if you want to see it anytime soon feel free to harass him on the comment section below. We wouldn’t have been able to go when we did without the help of family and  friends. Thanks to Mike for the hardwood floors and to Aaron for the steel bumper. Thanks to Tio Jose Louis Fong for the canvas pop-top, Fred for helping us make our cabinets, and to so many others whose guidance and assistance has been beyond helpful. And now the journey begins…

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And We’re Off… Well Almost

In three days’ time, we need to have the house packed and the MotherShip ready for departure. While the excitement is nearly unbearable, the anxiety of trying to get it all finished is looming over our heads. Tom has been tirelessly working on the Vdub, replacing its engine, rewiring it, putting in a water filtration system and many other things that I don’t have a clue about because I don’t speak car. I did, however, work on the intake manifold… took me a while to get that name right as I was referring to it as the uptake manifest for a good month and half before anyone corrected me… rude.

While Tom has been working on the MotherShip, my responsibilities have been more of the domestic variety- packing up the house and sewing curtains, etc. for the van. The feminist in me threw a fit- gendered work, how dare anyone suggest that! Then Tom softly pointed out that while he would be happy to sew curtains and pack the house he fears that I wouldn’t know how to put a Subaru conversion engine into the MotherShip or know how to do other mechanical type things. I silently cursed my parents for always taking our vehicle to the mechanic whenever something was wrong instead of teaching me how to repair it (not that they would know how to fix the car themselves, but you always have to blame your parents for something, right?).

In an effort to restore my pride, I told Tom that I agreed and that he should do the mechanical work. I nonchalantly stated that this should be so because as my being Captain of the Mothership, he will be my Number One.* Tom’s face looked confused as if he were trying to process a million different things. Tom finally spoke, “first of all, what are you talking about? And secondly, you think YOU are Captain of the Mothership?” “It’s from Star Trek, Next Generation”, I replied. “Piccard never actually did much of the driving of the ship and when Piccard wanted something or something went wrong he would simply turn to Number One and say make it so Number One. It’s kind of the way we are. I am Captain and you are Number One.” While Tom failed to comment on that statement I took his lack of a response as an affirmation of my brilliance. I imagined him thinking, why yes, Brooke, you are the Captain and I will proudly serve as your Number One. Now I just have to figure out how to say it in Spanish…

Besides reenacting scenes from what I envision would be on Little House on the Prairie** while my mom and I packed up the house and Tom’s mom and I worked on curtains, I tried to get all things wedding related in order. My mom and I went to pick up my dress yesterday. She hasn’t seen it before so I tried it on at the store for her. She started crying. At first I thought she was crying because she thought I looked beautiful in the dress and all those other thoughts that mothers have about their daughters when they see them in a wedding dress for the first time. Then I looked over my shoulder and saw her crying while staring at the other group of people in the fitting room drinking wine. She wasn’t crying about my dress. She was crying because no one offered her wine. Bad parenting you think? No, I completely understood. When I realized what she was actually crying about, I nearly shed a tear, too.

Having my dress all figured out, I tried to get Tommy to settle on something he wants to wear. The wedding isn’t until February, but I wanted to get everything in order before we take off. Bringing it up in front of his mother and my mother probably wasn’t the best idea. They say you revert back to your childhood ways when you are around family. Mix that with a few beers and you get the following response to a simple request that he needs to buy a suit, “A suit! I don’t wear suits. They are icky! Tommy no want to wear suit.” Actually, I think he reverted back way before his childhood, to a previous life in a more barbaric time when you speak about yourself in third person and leave important words out of sentences making  it grammatically incorrect. After a good scolding from his mother, he begrudgingly agreed, although still pouting.

Tom is finishing up his work on the dairy. He is a bit sad to stop working on the family business, but excited about the unknown adventures that await us. The dairy work will come in very handy along the way, you know, for all those times we need to stop and milk cows. The mechanical experience working on cars, trucks, and tractors, may come in handy too should the MotherShip need some TLC.

We leave for Montana next week, then down to Colorado, Arizona, Mexico and beyond! We will try to update this blog frequently. Tommy will write a blog soon about the mechanical aspects of the trip preparation. Please comment and/or email. Hearing from friends, family, and people curious about the trip would be delightful.

Much love.

* The “number one” joke was taken from the hilarious people at my office. However, as a secret Star Trek Next Generation fan, I modified it and added it to my own life.

** I have never seen Little House on the Prairie. I just imagine cleaning and sewing would be on a lot of the episodes.

Categories: Feminism, Mechanics, Travel, Wedding | 5 Comments

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