Wednesday, January 31, 2007

January 28-29, 2007: End of our first week in Belize

Sunday really is a day of rest in Belize. Nothing is open except the Chinese grocery stores, and the streets in San Ignacio are deserted. We wanted to get Mel out for a walk, but didn’t want to take him into town because Belize isn’t any different from Mexico in that nobody has ever seen a borzoi before, and everybody has to stop and ask questions and pat him. Even though the town was very quiet compared to the rest of the week, we decided to head towards Guatemala on the Western Highway and find a nice place to park the truck and get the three dogs out for a walk in the country.

We took the turnoff towards Calla Creek, which is a dirt road through the countryside along the river. It reminds us of Nations Road in Geneseo, since it follows the river and is surrounded by pastures with grazing cattle. Of course the trees are palms instead of oaks, and the cattle are Brahmin cows, and the few horses thrown in are definitely not Genesee Valley Hunt horses, but the basic elements of the picture are the same. We found a wide spot along the road near a fishing hole to pull off and park, and we set off up the road. After slopping through the mud puddles which make up most of the dirt roads around here right now because of all the rain, within about a half mile we came to the village of Calla Creek, which has all of a dozen houses and a small clapboard church.

Suddenly we were surrounded by children. They came out of houses, and out of back yards, and out of the church, and out of the fields and ditches. None of them said a word, they just looked at us with their big brown eyes. We told them, in both English and Spanish, that the dogs were friendly, and they all sort of looked away and hung back. So, we continued our walk up the road with a trail of fifteen or so children following us. When we had walked through the town and decided to turn back (Mel isn’t good for much more than a mile or so any more), we were facing the kids, so we smiled big smiles and asked them again if they wanted to pat the dogs. They inched closer, and a couple of the braver kids reached out and patted Mel. Then a few stepped up and patted Nock and Lou. Within a couple of minutes, they were all patting all the dogs, checking out their ears and tails, exclaiming over Mel’s long nose (grande nariz), and jabbering away to each other and us.

At some point they were completely over their shyness, and they started asking us if they could have the dogs. We explained that the dogs are our pets, and we didn’t want to give them up, and the dogs are all pretty old anyway. So, they grabbed the leashes, with us still holding the ends, and traveled along with us talking away. When we were just about out of the town, we came across three horses grazing in the ditch that we had passed on the way into town. Like a flock of birds, the kids wheeled away from us and surrounded the horses. One of the kids had been carrying what looked like a chopped up longe line, which turned out to be a makeshift halter, so they haltered one of the horses and dragged it through the ditch and into the road to show to us. The horse was little and rangy and blind in one eye, but we made all the appropriate oohing and aahing sounds, which prompted one of the kids to ask us if we would like to trade the horse for Mellow. We told them no, we really wanted to keep Mel, and we didn’t have any place to keep a horse anyway, which probably made no sense to them since you just keep a horse in a ditch beside the road. With that they gave up their campaign to get a dog, and they dragged the horse back towards town, and we continued back to our truck.




Mel's face is finally getting better




On the way back to the campground, we decided to stop at one of the Chinese groceries to pick up some bottled water and see if anything looked good for dinner. We got some chicken, and some rice noodles for stir fry. When we got back to the camper I went to put the noodles in the cabinet and noticed a black spot. When I looked closer, I realized the black spot was moving. Then I realized that there were quite a few moving black spots in the package of noodles. I checked the expiration date; it was May 2006. Lesson number one with the $40 dog food was to always check prices before anything goes in the cart. I’d now learned lesson number two: always make sure nothing is crawling around in whatever you buy, and check the expiration dates.

Since we’ve realized that whatever property we buy, we’ll probably want to make some changes, we decided on Monday to take a drive over to Spanish Lookout. Spanish Lookout is a largely Mennonite community, so they have all sorts of farm stores with building supplies, appliances, tractors, hardware – basically whatever you need to build a farm and keep it running. There are two roads into Spanish Lookout from the Western Highway; one is only about three miles, but you have to take the ferry, and the other has a bridge and is mostly nicely paved, but it’s about 15 miles longer by the time you drive to the road from San Ignacio, and then take the long way around to the actual town.








We had intended to take the long way over the bridge, but we saw the sign that said “Spanish Lookout 3” which had a sign for horses for sale immediately under it, so we changed our minds and headed down the ferry road. This was despite the fact that we had just heard a horror story from Greg (the campground owner) about how some people were drowned because just as they loaded their car on the ferry, a drunk driver came down the hill and hit them, knocking their car off the ferry and into the river. When we pulled up to the crossing, there were three cars in front of us, and the ferry was just heading towards our side from the other side of the river. We pulled over and turned off the ignition. It reached our side, the cars drove off, the people who had been riding outside the cars jumped in the cars, and they drove away. The ferry can only fit three cars at a time, so the three cars in front of us pulled onto the ferry and it started crossing back. When it came time for us to load, one of the crossing workers came up to our truck and said “Di passenger have to get out di vehicle,” so I got out and jumped on the ferry to ride on the side while Tom drove on, giving me a good chance to look down the river. When we got to the other side, I did what the other passengers had done, which is to jump off and run up the hill so that Tom, being the first truck in line, could drive away from the ferry so the other cars could get off before letting me get back in the truck. We continued towards Spanish lookout, although we didn’t stop to see the horses for sale because they were down another road in the opposite direction from where we were going. When we get a place and are ready for horses, we’ll make a trip especially for horse shopping; it’s probably dangerous for me to look now because I might just decide that keeping a horse in the ditch is okay if I see one I like!




Tom, who just got a new battery in his watched, timed the crossing: five or six minutes each way, with a few minutes to load and unload, so each cycle took twelve or thirteen minutes. That meant we waited about 20 minutes for our turn, which meant it probably would have been just as quick to drive around – but we seem to be getting better at operating on Belizean time, so we just enjoyed the ride.

We found lots of stuff in Spanish Lookout, and got a list of prices on everything from gutters to tractors. We’re not sure what we’ll need, since we don’t know what we’re buying yet, but we feel pretty confident that we can find everything we need somewhere around here, and for the most part the prices are comparable to prices in the US. There are a few things that are more expensive, like appliances, but there are also a few things that are less expensive, so it seems to wash.

It continued to rain for most of Monday afternoon, so I decided to cook since it’s cool enough that the stove doesn’t heat up the camper too much. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying shopping at the open air farm markets, and have been trying some of the fruits and vegetables that we don’t see up north. We’d been given a chocho by our camping neighbors who were heading to Guatemala earlier in the week, and found that we liked it. It’s sort of like a squash, but it has just one big seed in the middle, like an avocado, and a green prickly skin, and it has a lot more substance than a squash. I decided that it could be used like an eggplant, so I set out to make chocho parmesan. I didn’t want to use canned sauce, so I made my own sauce, which was sort of a cross between Italian style tomato sauce and salsa. I sliced, breaded, and fried the chochos, simmered the sauce, and then put it in a pan layered with cheese, which is very fresh and readily available around here. I baked it for about an hour and we ate it over rice, also grown and harvested locally. Tom, who was tentative because he’s not all that fond of eggplant parmesan, said it was much better than eggplant, and I liked it just as much.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Expenses to drive from Brownsville, TX, USA to Corozol Town, Belize

Travel cost summaries

I have finally summarized our expenses for the blog.

We had a total budget of $2350 to drive thru Mexico based on 8 days on the road, $40/day for food, $50/night for a place to stay, 2,000 miles to drive getting 10 mpg, diesel at the cost of $3.15/gallon, and other unforeseen costs at $1,000.

Our actual expenses amounted to $1,144.71. Some of our differences were as follows: we spent a total of 11 nights in Mexico, diesel cost about $2.02/gallon, we got about 11mpg, we ate all but 1 meal in the camper, and nightly camping fees were running around $15/night.

So our drive down cost around $1,200 less than we expected (hooray!).

Getting over the border into Belize cost around $1,130 less than we had budgeted. Our budget was pretty much a shot in the dark based on internet postings that ranged from being what we found to be very accurate to way out exaggerations of how unfair and corrupt the customs agents are in Belize.

This meant our total savings over what we had budgeted for getting from Texas to Belize was around $2,330, which we can use to put toward our living expenses while we are looking for property down here.

Note: If anyone wishes to see a spreadsheet with budget and actual figures, please email us and we will forward it to you. We just can't seem to figure out how to get a spreadsheet to upload into html format and look proper. If anyone out there knows how to do this, please let us know. Thanks.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

January 25-27 in Belize

Business first – we still don’t have a Belize phone number, but we went to an internet café today (Saturday) which uses BTL DSL, and we were able to retrieve Skype voicemail. So, if you want to contact us, use either Skype or email, and we’ll get both types of messages at the same time. We’ll let everybody know when we have a phone, and when we have internet access other than through internet cafes. The campground owner is trying to get WIFI up and running here, but he keeps encountering unexpected difficulties which send him back to town, and he has other projects he’s trying to finish too, and then it’s another day until he can get it done.

It’s been raining here, up until this afternoon. It hasn’t really bothered us, but it’s making the locals not so happy. In our minds, it’s still warm, and the rain isn’t snow, and while there have been showers where it’s rained hard enough that you get pretty wet, for the most part it’s just been gray and drizzly and only a minor inconvenience. We’ve actually sort of liked it, because we’ve been driving around with a real estate agent and looking at properties, and we figure that if we like something when it’s gray and dripping, we’ll love it when it’s sunny – which is a better perspective than falling in love with a place because it’s beautiful in the sunshine, and then finding that it’s dismal in the rain.


The only problem with the rain is the mud, just like anywhere else. Poor Tinkerbell was humiliated because we went out looking at properties with the real estate agent on Thursday, so we walked to town and went in his truck, and left Tinkerbell at the campground. When we got back that afternoon we were going to drive into town to pick up a few things, and as soon as Tom started to back up, he realized she was sunk in the mud. We decided to wait and see if it dried out at all by Friday. It didn’t. It rained most of Thursday night, so by Friday morning Tink was sunk to her rims. Tom jacked her up and started packing stuff under the tire, but it wasn’t working. After two or three jack and pack cycles, Greg (the campground owner) heard the engine and came down to see what we were doing. He walked back up to the house, got his old VW Golf, and towed her out of the mud. How humiliating – the big heavy duty Ford unmired by a measly VW Golf! That little exercise complete, we went to meet the realtor, only about an hour and a half later than expected. But hey, it’s Belize, and nobody really cared.

Speaking of taking the truck into town, Tom has already had two offers from people wanting to buy her. The customs agents had said that there nobody wants this type of truck because gas is so expensive, but we weren’t in town an hour before the offers started. It seems to be difficult to get an affordable vehicle strong enough to pull a trailer, and everybody seems to have something to tow, whether it’s a work trailer, or an equipment trailer, or a stock trailer, or just some piece of crap with a hitch on wheels.

A few things have happened that have made us laugh. We were with the realtor and were getting ice cream cones, and the owner of the ice cream shop came out to meet us since they’re also from the US. He asked us where we were from, we said New York, he looked us up and down, and said, “Upstate, obviously. Which city?” We THINK it was a compliment. Then today we were in an internet café owned by a guy from England who works in the US sometimes. He had asked us where we were from, and left it at New York. Then a woman came in and was talking to him, and she managed to “insult” him three times in about as many sentences, first by saying he was Australian (he’s British), then, when she found out he was British by assuming he is from London (he’s not), and then, as she was trying to untangle herself, she referred to the woman working with him as his wife (she’s not). He came over to tell us about it and to laugh about how clueless people from NYC are, and he never even checked to make sure we weren’t from the Big Apple. When I pointed out that he’d made an assumption similar to the insulting woman’s assumptions in talking to him, he looked baffled and informed us that it’s obvious we’re from Upstate because we’re relaxed and nice.

We’ve only had to gulp over things costing more here than in the US twice, so far. One was a bag of dog food that cost $40USD. I thought the $20 or so I was spending in the US was pricey, but now we know why the Belizeans feed their dogs tortillas and spoiled meat. I’ll be checking out the feed store when we’re halfway through this bag, reading the ingredients lists and trying to find a reasonably good reasonably priced dog food. The other was our laundry. There aren’t any self service laundromats in this area, and maybe not in all of Belize, so the choices are to drop it off and have someone do it for you (which they call a laundromat), and the other is to get a washboard and do it in a utility sink. We hadn’t done laundry since Texas, so we’d racked up almost two weeks worth on our drive through Mexico, and I didn’t really feel like doing it by hand. So, we dropped it off in town, with instructions to pick it up that evening. Tom went to pick it up, and found that it was almost $35USD! I’m still resisting the washboard, so we’ll probably ask for rates at the next laundromat, and hope we find a place to buy that already has a washer!

The property search is interesting, and we’re glad to be started. Our real estate agent has been great about finding places that interest us, and we spent all day Thursday and part of Friday looking at houses and property. We have another day or two of looking to do next week, and then we’ll probably start making decisions. The good news is that we’ve heard from multiple sources that once an offer is accepted, it’s possible to close within a couple of weeks, so if we find something we like we could be calling Belize home by the end of February. But, we have a few decisions to make and a few bridges to cross before we get there.

And I probably should have said this before, but thanks to everyone for your support, and all the good wishes, thoughts, and prayers that you sent in our direction. Obviously, they worked! We’re here safe and sound and loving life, and we hope all of you are too.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

First day back at “work” and doing business in Belize

We were up bright and early, and spent what turned into better than an hour chatting with the other campers. Then Tom dropped the waste tank, I got my yogurt started, and we headed into San Ignacio. We dropped off the laundry and made our first stop at the internet café, where we found that the network was too slow on their computers to do blog updates. We had parked right across the street from one of the real estate agents recommended by the campground owner, so we dropped in to talk to him. He really listened to what we said, and showed us a number of listings that look interesting; we are going out with him tomorrow morning to start to get some frame of reference for what is available and how much it will cost. Our basic requirements right now are that the property must already have some structure that can be lived in even if it needs work, it must be somewhat accessible, and there must be room and the right kind of room for horses.

We then went to the hardware store to get the parts needed to fix the waste tank. The hardware store didn’t have two of the bolts Tom needed, but they sent him to a local metal working shop where they allowed Tom to use their vice to straighten the old bolts. As he walked out, Tom’s comment was that we have to remember this place, since they have all the tools and are very willing to just let anybody in to use them for whatever the feel like paying.

Then we were back to the produce stands, which I can’t seem to resist, then back to the internet café with my laptop, which is right next to the BTL (Belize Telephone) office. I started on blog posting, and Tom went to BTL, where they told him that right now there aren’t any SIM chips in Belize. He asked if there were any other options to get our cell phone working, and they very calmly said no, come back later. Tom asked if he should come back tomorrow, and they said no, maybe next week. Tom asked if maybe Monday, and they said no, maybe Wednesday. So, for now, we don’t have any phone access other than Skype, and we haven’t yet found a network fast enough to support that. But, if anyone wants to leave us a voice message, use the Skype number and we’ll try to get it. Otherwise, just drop us an email. Our first taste of doing business in Belize!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Corozol to San Ignacio

We woke up to a beautiful Belize morning and decided to move camp to San Ignacio in the Cayo district, which is towards the center of Belize north to south, on the western side near the Guatemalan border. Before we left Corozol, we had to do a little camper maintenance. Going over a very large tope in Cancun, we had broken the connection from the camper toilet to the black water waste tank. Our camper’s spare tire is mounted under the nose of the camper, and attached by two long bolts. After the truck tires had cleared the tope, and before the camper tires had hit, the bolts holding the spare tire to the mounting had hit the tope, and the entire tire mount had been pushed back, which had pushed back the black water tank, breaking the pipe. It had still worked, but every time we used it one of us had to go in the camper and look down the hole while the other went under the camper and pushed the tank to line it up – not the most pleasant task, by any means, but we’ve learned over the years that when you stay in a camper, you learn to deal with the icky plumbing issues.

The Corozol campground had sewer access by every site, so we emptied the tank, then dragged the hose in the camper and thoroughly cleaned the tank inside and out via the toilet. We were laughing because while we were in Georgia, Pete (my brother) had put one of those magnetic bumper stickers on our bumper which said “I smell like shit,” and we decided that we probably should have kept it because after two days of a non-sealed tank, the camper certainly did. The thorough wash job made it so we could drive through Belize without causing everyone we passed to pull a bandana over their faces, and so we could get out of the truck without being too embarrassed.


The Corozol camp ground, looking towards the sea









That icky task accomplished, we got on the Northern Highway and headed south through Orange Walk. We bypassed Belize City north of the airport and picked up the Western Highway towards Belmopan. We stopped at Amigo’s for lunch, took the dogs for a quick walk, and went in to eat. One of the waiters had seen us walking the dogs, and wanted to know if we had any Jack Russell puppies. He says he’s really wanted a Jack Russell, but that they’re hard to get in Belize, although there are a ton of dogs around that definitely have some terrier influence in their genes. We warned him that they’re pretty hyper, and the more horror stories we told him of the difficulty of keeping Jack Russells, the bigger his smile became. We told him we’ll keep our eyes out, and if we see any, we’ll let him know.

We stopped in Belmopan to pick up some groceries. While there, my stomach decided to rebel again (I haven’t quite gotten over the Cancun/Calderitas queasiness), so Tom had to find some balance between driving fast to get to San Ignacio, and driving carefully enough not to hit too many speed bumps and potholes too hard. We made it to the Inglewood Campground in time, and parked temporarily. Greg, the owner, showed up shortly after we got there and directed us to a nice out-of-the way site in the shade and right next to a palapa (and not too far from the bathroom). We started dinner, and our neighbors, a couple from New Mexico on a three month tour of Mexico and Central America, came over with a bag of produce. They are heading into Guatemala on Wednesday, and know that they can’t take produce over the border, so they ate as much as they could and gave the rest to us.

Greg, a Belize native who is a retired engineer who worked in the aerospace industry in the US for 30 years, gave us the info we needed to get our laundry done, get a chip for our phone so it will work in Belize, and find a hardware store for the parts we need to fix the black water tank, as well as recommendations for a couple of real estate agents. He also has some land for sale in this area, which we will probably look at, even though we told him that we’re probably looking for something with a house already on it since it would take quite a while to build. We figure that agenda will pretty much fill up our Wednesday, since we’re now on Belizean time!

Greg and his wife are also big animal people, with house cats (a rarity in Belize) and four dogs, two of which are puppies he picked up as strays, took to the vet, and which are now his. He told us about the difficulty of finding good homes for them, where they won’t just be tied to chains and left outside, and said that he figures he’ll just keep them. We took this as a cautionary tale, and decided it’s a good thing that our dogs don’t always get along with other dogs, since hopefully that will prevent us from getting a dog collection too quickly!



Squinting in the sun!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Belize

We were up before our 6:30 alarm, in time to watch the sun rise over the Caribbean from our bed. We were out of the campground by 8:30, and after a quick stop for more cold bottled water, we hit the Mexican border a little after nine. We knew where we had to go to get our passports stamped out, but we didn’t know where to go to turn in our vehicle permit, which is only good for six months, and which we needed to turn in because we plan to stay in Belize for at least a year. We pulled over on the side of the road just short of the immigration building to ask a man on the sidewalk, and the man on the sidewalk turned out to be a rep from the customs broker who had been sent over the border to look for us and make sure we got to the right place. He told Tom where to go to turn in the vehicle permit, and went back over the border to make sure we didn’t have to get the truck and trailer sprayed again.


This is the total number of miles driven in Mexico (plus 1000 miles). The picture was taken just as we were about to cross the bridge into Belize.

We successfully did everything we had to do in Mexico, and met the broker, David, at the spray station. David very efficiently told Javier that we no longer needed his help, and then informed us that everyone at the border considers Javier a pain in the butt because he’s always latching onto people entering Belize, extorting “tips” for his help, and getting in the way of the customs and immigration people who are trying to do their jobs. David jumped in the truck, had us stop at the booth to give them the truck and trailer documentation needed to get permits to drive them in Belize, and took us on to the customs building.

Before I say anything else, I have to say that the whole customs and immigration process was way easier, fairer, and simpler than anyone had led us to believe. Everyone was helpful and friendly, and nobody was out to give us any trouble in any way. We pulled up and David and Tom went into the building, where they continued processing the truck and trailer. We then had to wait a little while, and a customs agent came out to assess the truck and trailer to determine the duty we needed to pay. When they saw the truck and trailer, they immediately determined that they were worth only salvage value, not blue book value; this was something they didn’t have to do, since we would have no recourse if they said they were both worth blue book value, and it saved us a lot of money. A BAHA (Belize Agriculture and Health Agency) agent then came over and asked what food we were bringing into Belize. I told him, he asked to look at our produce, I took the produce drawer out of the fridge, and he took a total of one lime. Everything else was fine since we didn’t have any meat and no other citrus.

He then sent me, the dogs, and the dogs’ paperwork across the road to the BAHA building, where I had my passport stamped to enter Belize. I took the dogs and their paperwork to the BAHA inspector, who determined that everything was in order. Because all three dogs were on one import application, we were only charged the fee for one application and the processing of the single application – another place where the officials could have easily charged us for three rather than one, but didn’t.

While I was there, he got a phone call from customs, which had started reviewing our personal belongings. They had seen the horns on the front of the truck, and had questioned the eight foot horn box in the back of the pickup. The BAHA official back at the truck said Tom would definitely have to unload the horns for inspection. Tom started closing the back of the truck and they wanted to know why; so Tom explained that he needed to unhook the truck from the camper, pull ahead 10 feet, open the back, and he needed 3 men to help him pull the box out to open it up. “It should only take about half and hour, then I need 3 guys to help me put it back in.” The BAHA guy thought a minute and then stated that we should have completed an import application for both sets of horns because they’re beef-related. It turned out to be no big deal; BAHA just charged another $10USD to import both sets of horns, and I took care of that while I was paying for the dog permits.

I went back to the customs building to wait for the personal belongings agent to determine the value of our stuff, and Tom went to get his passport stamped and to change our pesos to Belizean dollars. That done, we just had to wait for the rest of the processing. I screwed up a little bit because I took the dogs inside to wait since it was very hot in the truck and trailer, and outside in general. That wasn’t a problem until I let the Jacks jump on my lap, when I was very politely asked not to let the dogs on the bench. Oops. I apologized and took the dogs outside since we were almost ready to pay and go anyway.

The personal belongings agent came back with a very fair valuation on our stuff. Tom wasn’t sure how that was going to go, because he had only done a quick check through the truck and trailer, and hadn’t asked us to take anything out or unpack. Tom’s planning ahead and making a list of what was in each numbered box, then creating a complete packing list with the box numbers, the location of the box in the rig, and the detailed contents of each box, really helped – even more than we had anticipated. Tom said the agent looked at a few boxes, made sure the lists matched, and that was that. When we had that paperwork, Tom went with the broker and paid the broker our entire duty amount, and the broker then paid Belize customs. Tom distributed tips where appropriate, and even with the number of tips that are somewhat expected, our duty came in way below our worst case estimate.

Our positive experience in getting through customs, in our opinion, was greatly determined by:
1 – Our research in what needed to get done and having the appropriate paperwork ready to be reviewed.
2 – Packing our belongings neatly and having a very detailed list of what and where everything is stored, and agreeing that we would open any boxes they would like to inspect.
3 – Having contacted a reputable broker ahead of time and keeping them up to date as to when we were coming over the border.
4 – Being honest about what we were bringing into the country and why we were coming through with so many personal items.
5 – Being very patient with the process and not trying to bully our way through like we were the most important ones at the customs area. David, our broker, told us right up front that the produce trucks are their first priority to get out the gate, for obvious reasons, and we were careful not to interfere with that process.

We were cleared out of customs, and stopped on the way out to get Belizean auto insurance, also no big deal. The entire process, from meeting the broker rep in Mexico to driving away after getting insurance, took a total of five and a half hours – not a lot of time in our minds, considering we just moved our entire life to a new country. Of course we left our home in New York two months and two days ago, but the trip to this point has been an extended vacation, so we can’t count that as administrative time.

We pulled into Corozol, the northernmost town in Belize. We stopped at the first RV park we came to north of town, but it’s for sale and doesn’t appear to be in business any more. We drove into town and asked if there were any others, and were directed to a simple but nice park just south of town, just across the street from the sea breakwall. We dumped the trailer and headed back into town to pick up a few groceries since we had done our best to eat everything we had, not knowing what wasn’t allowed into Belize – and if you know me, you know the hangup I have about wasting food. We got back, cracked our first Belikin (beer), fed the dogs, and took them for a walk down a side road with a few hotels and a few houses being built along a canal that leads to the bay.

We’re now catching up on our self appointed paperwork, and waiting for the chicken to cook so we can have our first dinner in Belize. Tom is going to post a detailed list of what it cost to get what we have into Belize and what it cost to travel through Mexico, just in case anyone is curious. Tomorrow we’re going to head southwest to San Ignacio, which we will use as our base while we figure out where we’re going to live. We have lots of decisions to make in the next week or so – where we want to look for property, what kind of property we want and what we can afford, whether we want to stay in the camper until we find a more permanent place to live, whether we want to store our stuff until we find a place, or whether we just want to get an apartment for us and our stuff until we know where we’re going.

We finished Phase I when we sold off everything we own and left New York State. Now Phase II – moving our stuff to Belize – seems to be closing. This has been a huge learning process and great project for us to undertake. There has been a lot of stress and some sleepless nights wondering how all this would work out (what have we forgotten?) but we have come through this transition still happily married! It looks like Phase III is about to begin: Let’s go find a new place to live and new jobs. We are going to get off the list of those that are homeless and unemployed!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Chetumal to Belize and back to Chetumal



Can we park any closer to the ocean - "Tinker Belle" (our truck) thinks not.



View of the "campground" from the ocean.



A beautiful pool for a camper park, complete with water that cascades from the arches.



Marge with the dogs against the Carribean Sea in the morning - just like she wanted for the winter.

By morning I was feeling slightly more human – probably about how Tom felt the morning before. We ate and showered and walked the dogs, packed up the rig, and headed for the Belize border. The only problem with this whole unemployed and homeless thing is that you lose track of the days of the week, and weekends become a whole lot less significant than they are when you’re working. We made our way back through Chetumal, turned in our Mexican tourist visas, and drove over the bridge into Belize. We were waved over to have the undersides of our truck and trailer sprayed, and we met Javier, who told us that the spraying was $15USD, and he wouldn’t mind a little extra so he could get himself a Coke. We gave him a $20 since we didn’t have exact change anyway, and asked him which way to the customs brokers. He informed us that they weren’t open on Sunday, and that immigration wasn’t open, but that we could pull up behind the buildings until 9:00 Monday morning – which was 20-some hours away. We decided to turn around and go back to the campground in Calderitas, and he told us that Mexico would charge us for new tourist visas unless he went with us to explain what we were doing. So, I scooched over onto the dog pillow on the console, and Javier jumped into my seat in the truck. He had us pull over at the Mexican border, and he and I took our passports into the Mexican immigration building. He explained (fairly accurately, from what I could tell with my limited Spanish), and we were told to get in the military inspection line to be searched. Tom pulled up with the rig, Javier and I went and retrieved the tourist visas that Tom had turned in not too long before, the trailer was searched, and then we were sent on our way. Javier told Tom that his service was worth $75USD, which was bunk, because new tourist visas would have been a lot less than that. Tom gave him another $20, and Javier said to find him in the morning so he could “help” us again. Our plan in the morning – provided that we aren’t detained in Mexico because of the now screwy passport stamps – is to show the receipt that says our vehicle was just sprayed so we don’t have to pay for that again, tell Javier that we don’t need any more “help,” and find the customs agent we’ve been talking to via email to get us, the dogs, and our stuff into Belize.

We spent a very enjoyable afternoon at the campground, swimming in the pool and walking the dogs along the beach. The beach in this little town is lined with open air cafes, and it looks like a typical Sunday for the people who live around here is to load the whole family in the car, and then the adults sit in one of the cafes and eat and drink and laugh, and the kids play in the water. As we walked by with the dogs, the kids would run out of the water and through the cafes to see Mel, el grande perrro. We felt like we were walking some sort of exotic animal, which I guess he is in a way, although he’s just a dog to us. They would all ask if he bites, and when we’d say no, he’d be petted and patted and generally admired. Lou and Nock get their share of attention, but most of it is after Mel has drawn the crowd. We’re just glad he lived through Mexico and we didn’t have to strap his carcass to the roof of the truck cap! He only needs to last one more night, and he’ll have made it to Belize.

This is about to be the first almost live updated blog. Without internet access, I’ve been writing in Word and then uploading with correct dates when we’ve had access. Here, I’m just finishing writing this, sitting outside the camper about 20 feet from the Caribbean with a beautiful breeze keeping the bugs away, listening to singing from the tail end of a birthday party for the 13 year old daughter of the campground owner. It’s a little after 7:00 now, and about a half hour ago we watched the light fade over the Caribbean. I’ll post the next update ASAP, hopefully from Belize.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Cancun to Chetumal



Mariano in Cancun helping us get out onto the street.

We decided over breakfast that we wanted to get out of Cancun and away from the tourist traps ASAP. The night before, since Tom was sleeping, I read a Cancun tourist guide given to us by the campground, and decided that if something was listed in the guide, we probably didn’t want to stop there. That changed our plans a little bit, because the original point of driving around the Gulf and up the Yucatan Peninsula had been to drive down along the Caribbean through the Mayan Riveria, but the Mayan Riveria is all part of the Cancun tour business. Between Tom changing the air filter and checking the fuel filters on the truck, and the fact that I was moving very, very slowly, we didn’t pull out of the RV park until after 11:00. We got through the traffic in the city and headed south on a 4-lane highway with the goal of making it to Chetumal, the border town for crossing into Belize, by nightfall.

We were moving along with traffic, and had just passed one of those radar speed display things that said we were going 84 kph. Shortly after that, Tom looked out his window and saw a dark car trying to push us off the road. Tom speeded up to get ahead of him, and then he whooped a siren at us and we realized it was a police officer. We pulled over, he pulled up behind us, and walked to the window. He spoke enough English and we spoke enough Spanish for him to make it clear that he had pulled us over because we were speeding. He said we were going 95 kph in a 80 kph zone – which we weren’t, but since it was our word against his, and we don’t speak the language, and we were in fact speeding by 4 kph, Tom went with him to his car and gave him his license. He told Tom that the procedure was for the cop to take Tom’s license, and we were to drive to the police station and wait for him, and then we could pay our fine and go. He told Tom that he wouldn’t be there for at least an hour, so Tom told him that we wanted to be in Chetumal before dark, and asked if there was any way to resolve this on the side of the road. Of course there was a way – just give the cop $1146 pesos (about $105USD). Tom came back and we went through our pesos and managed to come up with EXACTLY $1146 pesos, which he gave to the cop who we know would not have provided any change, and who returned his license and told him to respect the speed limits – which Tom did for about 50 miles, much to the distress of the lines of traffic that were piling up behind us. Once we were south of the Mayan Riveria and traffic had thinned out and we were back to “normal” Mexico roads, he started driving like he’s been driving for the rest of the trip and we had no further problems.

It was frustrating, because to that point in the trip all the bad things we’d heard about Americans traveling in Mexico had been completely false. Nobody had tried to take advantage of us, and everybody had gone out of their way to be helpful, and we’d always felt safe, even when sleeping on the street in the middle of the city of Campeche. We know the cop just pulled us over because we had American plates, since lots of cars were passing us, and 4kph is even less of a reason for a speeding ticket than 4mph in the US. Tom had budgeted a few hundred dollars for “mordida” (bribes) which we hadn’t touched, so the $105USD was in the budget, but we thought it was a shame that we had made it to the last day of our drive through Mexico without any problems, and then the only problem we had was in an area that is such a big attraction for tourists that we wish we had just skipped. I guess this highlights why we’re moving to Belize – life seems a lot friendlier to us when we’re off the beaten track.



The only other set of steer horns on a truck we have seen and it is a FORD! Men working on the roads in Mexico - obviously gesturing to us that we have "cajones" (balls).


We found a great campground in Calderitas, near Chetumal, named Yax-Ha. It’s right on the Carribean, and our trailer is backed up right to the sea wall, so the waves break about 10 feet from us when we’re sleeping. We racked up more complaints about the Sanborn’s guide since while it had the location of the campground basically correct, the name was wrong, the landmarks weren’t accurate, and the distances from point to point in their directions did not match the actual distances. However, it was definitely worth finding, since it’s beautifully landscaped, has a great pool, the cleanest bathrooms we’ve seen on the trip for hot showers, free wi-fi, and, like most of Mexico, great people.

The only problem was that when we pulled in, I was in the same condition that Tom had been in the evening before. I started making dinner for Tom since I had no intention of eating, but ended up letting him finish it while I took a handful of ibuprofen and curled up under a pile of blankets with the three dogs.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Chichen-Itza and Cancun



Main Temple



This is a spa circa 1000AD



Many columns to support a perishable roof.

We were up and on the road by 7:30, heading for another big Mayan ruin, Chichen-Itza. The drive was uneventful, although we noticed two seemingly contradictory things – the roads continued to be good, as they had been since we drove onto the Yucatan Peninsula, but for some reason there were way fewer PeMex stations. We should have tanked up in Merida on our way through, but we didn’t, and by the time we got to Chichen-Itza we had run the front tank and the auxiliary tank, which feeds the front tank, dry. It wasn’t a big deal because we just switched to the rear tank which we hadn’t yet touched, but it made us appreciate how easy it would be to run out of gas on the Mexican roads.

We pulled into Chichen-Itza around 11:00, and were immediately overwhelmed by all the cars, buses, and people. When we were at Palenque, there had been perhaps 100 people touring the ruins. At Uxmal, there had been maybe 500. At Chichen-Itza, there were thousands, maybe even 10,000 or more, mostly, from what we could tell, bused in from Cancun in the true “Disney” style, get as many people in and out and around the attractions as quickly as possible, hurry, hurry, hurry. There were crowds in the entry area, and crowds of people milling about in the ruins. Our big observation at Chichen-Itza was that in their almost-restored ball court,

we suddenly realized where the idea for quidditch in Harry Potter originated, since the ball court looked just like the quidditch field in the Harry Potter movies. As we walked around the ruins, which are impressive not because of any single tall pyramid or building, but because they just go on and on with some buildings as big as a football field with thousands of columns where a roof had once been, we watched people and listened, and were a little ashamed to be Americans.

We’d walk by groups being led by a tour guide, and there was always some wise ass in the group needling the guide, asking stupid questions, and then laughing too loudly at himself, and getting enough of the rest of the group to laugh just because people are such herd animals. Throughout the site, craftsmen come in and set out blankets and sell their beautiful artwork and crafts – carvings of wood or jade or obsidian, paintings, pottery, blankets, hammocks, embroidery, jewelry and very pretty colorful dresses. The vendors try to pull you in as you pass by and show you things you might find interesting. As we walked by one vendor, there was a man talking AT one of the vendors, in loud American English, saying “I don’t want any of this because I don’t care for this Mayan style.” Well excuse me, sir, but if I’m not mistaken you are touring a Mayan ruin, and exactly what do you expect them to sell?!? Why don’t you just cart your ass off to the nearest Walmart and buy some “American” crap that is made in China???

We also saw a lot of women wearing short shorts or skirts, and string bikini tops. Not halter tops, which might have been okay, but itty-bitty string bikini tops, some of which, like the short shorts and skirts, were a few sizes too small. I know they’re on vacation in the Caribbean, and the sun is beautiful, but I bet these women wouldn’t be caught dead visiting an art museum in one of the big US cities dressed like that, and these ruins are the equivalent of art museums. A little respect wouldn’t hurt. We were also appalled at the number of people jabbering on their cell phones instead of listening to the guides, although from our observations many of these people were speaking French. Who are they talking to and what could be so important that they have to exhibit that level of rudeness to the guide and to the other people in their groups who may have actually wanted to listen to the guide rather than one side of some inane conversation?

We left Chichen-Itza around 2:00, and finally found a Pemex about 30 miles down the road toward Cancun. We pulled into the diesel pump, and there was a big Chevy 3500, diesel, quadcab, dually, just loaded with bling or flash or whatever you want to call it – all the ground effects, light covers, and magnetic stickers proclaiming the driver was a cowboy and who knows what else. When we pulled up, he swaggered around our rig and asked Tom what we were doing and where we were going. I was watching all this from the passenger seat of our truck, pretending to look at the map and read the guide book, and even from a distance I took an instant dislike to the guy. I could tell that Tom also had his back up but he was very civil and just listened to the guy. He was in his early 50’s (our best guess) and had dyed reddish hair, was wearing jeans with a big silver belt buckle, and cowboy boots. He immediately told Tom he was from Tennessee, that he’d been in Mexico for a year, and was managing some nearby power plant, and had bought a great house in town, which he gave Tom directions to so we could go find it and admire it. Throughout his conversation with Tom, he’d occasionally give the guys at the pump some instructions, in pseudo English/Spanish which we’re not sure they even understood, and then say MOOCH-ASS GRASSY-ASS, AH-MEE-GOSE in a loud voice. You’d think after a year in the country, he might have learned a little conversational Spanish, but I guess you don’t need to do that when you’re the king of the redneck world and your emotional development stalled at age 17. He validated our opinion of him when he left, roaring away from the pump, slamming on the brakes as he got to the road, then chirping his tires as he got on the road and zoomed towards town. As we got ready to leave Tom tipped both the gentleman that washed our windows and the one that pumped our gas (which is customary) hoping that the locals wouldn’t think that ALL the people from the USA are such blowhards. Then we elected to take the turnoff to the toll road rather than going through town to admire the American’s “castle”.

The rest of the drive to Cancun was uneventful. The toll road between Merida and Cancun is easy driving. Like the toll road into Campeche, it’s a lot like an American interstate, but with bicycles and pedestrians on the shoulder. We followed the Sanborn’s directions to an RV park just a little north of Cancun, which were frustrating because they were very detailed, with some details wrong, although they were close to correct on the address of the RV park. Driving through Cancun with the truck and trailer was nerve wracking because the road we were on was 3 lanes of city traffic in each direction, but without any lane lines on the road, with construction in odd places popping up with no warning, and the ubiquitous topes which slow the traffic, but which also cause confusion because the people who know the road suddenly swerve to go over the tope at the lowest possible point and leave chaos in their wakes.

When we got to the campground, Mariano, whose family owns the campground, met us at the gate and told us where to park. We went out to park, he followed on foot, and when I got out of truck with the dogs he broke into a big smile and said “You have a borzoi!” I asked him how he knew, since he’s the first person in Mexico, and probably the first person on our trip, who knew the breed, and he explained that his sister breeds Bassett hounds and they travel to dog shows all through Mexico. I asked him what the breed is called in his country, and he said…borzoi. At least we’ve been telling everybody we’ve met the right thing! When I walked the dogs later that evening, he brought his entire family out to meet Mel, who of course loved the attention.

After we parked, we unhooked the truck and headed back out to the SuperChe to get some groceries. We were both exhausted, but when we got back in the truck after stopping Tom started messing with the air conditioner in the truck, making it cooler then warmer then cooler then warmer, which he NEVER does – I’m always the one who can’t find the right temperature. When we got back to the campground, I took the dogs and helped a guy next to us set up his tent in the dark, and Tom moved all the boxes from the floor of the camper where they travel now to the shelf over the bed. When I came back in the camper, Tom was on the bed, curled up and shivering despite the warm breeze blowing off the Caribbean, which is just across the road from the campground. He went to bed, and I brought in the groceries, made myself an egg sandwich, and followed.

By morning, Tom was feeling better, and whatever it is hit me. Getting cereal, orange juice, and tea out was done in three or four stages, because I’d have to lay down every few minutes rather than throw up or pass out. We both choked down some cereal, which Tom said made him feel well enough to drive. We’re not sure what got us – it’s probably not coincidence that we both got sick after eating and drinking out in Mexico the evening after we toured Uxmal, which is the first time we didn’t eat our own food in the camper. Or, it could have been because we spent two days touring ruins in the hot sun and got a little dehydrated. It could be some random 24 hour thing we picked up somewhere along the road. Or, it could be a continuation of whatever we had in Athens where we both got achey and our joints swelled up, which we think is something we got from tick bites in Florida. Whatever it is, if we still have it when we get to Belize, we’ll find a doctor and get some antibiotics.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Uxmal



Ball court in foreground where the losers literally lose their heads.



Main temple at Uxmal

Our plan was to head to Uxmal (pronounced Ishmal), go to a campground recommended in the guide, tour the ruins, and spend the night. That’s pretty much how it went, with the exception being that the campground recommended in the guide has had the jungle grow up around it, and it no longer has room for RVs or travel trailers. However, the owner of that establishment was very helpful, and recommended a place north of the Uxmal ruins, which we found and which turned out to be completely adequate. It’s a hotel and restaurant which allows RVs to park in front and plug in for only 100 pesos (about $10US), and since we could plug in the fridge which was starting to warm up after more than 24 hours, it was good enough for us.

We spent the day touring the Uxmal ruins. These ruins are even more set up for tourists than Palenque, and they are much more rebuilt which helped us see more how things probably looked in the times of the Mayans. The Uxmal city is a few hundred years younger than Palenque or the ruins we’ve seen in Belize and Guatemala, and Tom commented how you could tell that people have always strived for bigger and better since these newer ruins are bigger and better than the older ones we’ve toured. The buildings at Uxmal seem bigger, and the city seems much less organic; it’s arranged all in quadrangles, rather than around the lay of the land. This may have been because the lay of the land didn’t have as much impact on the city design because there are fewer natural water sources, but it may also have been that as time passed, the ancient city planners had a better idea of what they wanted. And the “bigger” part of that may be because the city has been reconstructed more extensively by archeologists, but we don’t know. We bought a book on Mayan civilization in this area that covers a number of the ancient Mayan cities; we hope that the book will answer some of our questions, and let us know if our observations and conclusions are valid, or if they’re based on too little for us to even be commenting.

We got back to the hotel/RV lot around 3:30, and decided to do some catching up. The people are very nice, like everyone we’ve met in Mexico, and invited us to spend the afternoon on the porch of their restaurant. So, we brought the dogs in and tied them to our chair legs, whipped out the laptops, ordered margaritas, and started catching up on writing stuff for this blog, logging expenses, and all the other paperwork that we seem to feel compelled to do despite the lack of real jobs. We talked to one of their guests, a man from Honduras who has lived in Nevada for seven years, and who was acting as our interpreter with the owners. He assures us that within two years we will be fluent in Spanish. I guess that’s a good thing, although at the moment spending two years communicating with hand signals and smiles seems like a long time. We ended up having dinner in their restaurant and a couple of more cervasas, which was the first we’ve eaten out because we’ve been doing all of our cooking in the camper. We logged up a total bill of 300 pesos (about $30US) for the entire afternoon and evening, including tip. Traveling in Mexico is not only fun, it’s relatively inexpensive.



Hotel restaurant, we sat in the veranda in the front (open on all sides) to work on blog stuff with dogs.

The guest from Honduras/Nevada also explained how to use our cell phone, and we get reception here, so we got our voice mail and returned a few phone calls. It turns out that we weren’t doing much wrong with the phone, but apparently we haven’t had reception at the times when we’ve tried it or when people have tried to call us. We’re just about to take a look at the guide book and map and figure out what we are doing for the next couple of days, since we’ve decided that we’re going to try to cross into Belize on Sunday, since the customs agent says that Fridays and Mondays are the busiest days, and we don’t think we’ll make it there by Saturday. So, two more days in Mexico, then on to Belize.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Palenque to Campeche

We slept in and had a relaxed breakfast before leaving for Campeche. We were told that Campeche was only about five hours from Palenque, so we weren’t in a big hurry. We went to the resort about a mile up the road because we had been told that they had an internet café, but showed up about 9:30 and found that they didn’t open until 10:00. We drove back to Maya Bell and finished packing to leave, then went back to the internet café a little after 10:00. We wanted to check email to make sure that we didn’t have to be at the Belize border to meet the customs agent by any special date, because if we did we would have cancelled the rest of our tour around the Yucatan Peninsula and driven straight to Chetumal, which is at the Belize border. We had received an email from the customs agent stating that it didn’t really matter when we got there, so we did a quick scan through the rest of the email (thanks to everybody we didn’t email back yet), and went back, hooked up the truck, and hit the road around 11:30, heading for Campeche.

The roads on the east side of the Gulf of Mexico are way better than the roads on the west. However, despite the good roads, the five hours turned to six because we were stopped at another ag stop, where the officer inspected the trailer for poultry products. We’re not quite sure what they wanted, because even though the officer spoke excellent English, when he asked if we had any poultry products and we told him that we had eggs for breakfast, he didn’t care and sent us on our way. A few miles up the road we were stopped at our first military checkpoint. Up to this time, we’d been waved through the military roadblocks, but they waved us into an inspection lane for this one. We were asked to leave the vehicle, and they took about a half hour going through the truck and trailer. I took the dogs out because they were worried that Mel would bite, but as I was walking the three dogs around, Tom said that some of the soldiers working on the roof of a small building whipped out their cell phones and started taking pictures of me and the dogs; we assume Mel was the subject of interest, since he’s been the center of attention every time we get him out of the truck. They finally declared us good to go, and we were back on the road to Campeche, where we encountered our first real 4-lane superhighway, just like a US highway (except there are pedestrians, bikers, kids, and animals all along the edge of the road – so not quite such carefree driving as in the US).

We arrived in Campeche around 5:30, which was about right since we’d blown a good hour between the ag stop, the military stop, and a quick lunch stop. The Sanborn’s guide book recommended an RV park in Campeche and gave detailed directions on how to get there. The only problem was that the directions were based on the non-toll road, so they started at the other end of the city from where we were dumped off the toll road. We drove through the city, which is pretty big since it’s the capital of the Mexican state of Campeche, and drove along the beautiful malecon (waterfront boulevard), looking for the landmarks. Our first hint that something was wrong was that the directions said that the University should be on our right, and it was on our left. So, we pulled into a parking lot, Tom jumped out and got directions, found that we were indeed heading the wrong way, and got back in the truck.

Getting out of the parking lot was like some sort of videogame driving test (Tom’s says like a CDE hazard but no assurances that you are able to navigate the gates). It was all one way lanes with sharp turns at the ends, and cars were parked out of the spaces in spots that should have been open for big vehicles needing to turn. He only drove slowly over a couple of curbs and managed not to hit any vehicles, then we had to find a traffic circle to get ourselves heading in the right direction, and then the landmarks started to make sense.

We followed the directions to a T, and found that the RV park was in the middle of the city, and no way to get there except for some very narrow streets. Each of the tight turns seemed to have cars parked in key spots on the corners the made it necessary for Tom to do a couple of forward and back moves to get the whole rig around the corner without hitting any of the parked vehicles or scraping the tires too badly on the curbs. We asked directions a couple of times, and were assured that we were on the right track to the campground. When we got there, we started to turn down the street indicated by both the written directions and the directions we’d received, and saw a dirt pile in the middle of the street. By this time it was dark. A very helpful man told us to turn around, go around the block, and approach from the other direction. That direction had a ditch running down the middle of the street. Our only option at that point was to head up another one of the steep ramps that road engineers seem to build in a country that doesn’t get any snow, or turn around. Tinkerbell wasn’t up to pulling the rig up the ramp without a running start – almost impossible to get on narrow city streets – so Tom got out and went to see if he could find out where the mythical campground was.

He found the campground, but also found that the road had been dug up five days ago and there was no way to drive there. So, the owner came out, helped us get turned around, and told us to park on the street. It may not have been the smartest thing in the world to do, and it’s definitely not recommended in any of the guidebooks, but that’s what we did. And it was okay, just like it was okay in Virginia. We went in the camper and fed the dogs, and I started making our dinner. Tom was sitting in a chair by the door, and people from the neighborhood started walking by and checking out the rig. When they saw that we had US plates, everyone who knew a little bit of English came by to practice. So, Tom practiced his Spanish while they practiced their English, and by the time we were getting ready for bed, our neighbors-for-the-night were walking by the trailer and saying “Good night, friends.”




We had a good night’s sleep, with a few brief wakeups. One was around midnight when an old Volkswagon Beetle was trying to get up the ramp and found that it couldn’t do it without a running start. So they let it drift down and tried again, and still couldn’t make it up. So then they determined that they needed to turn around, right behind our trailer, which has the bed in the back, and from what Tom could understand and see through the slat in the blinds, the bug didn’t have reverse. They’d pull up a little, get out, shut the doors, yell and push, then get in and go a little bit forward, then get out and yell and push again. It seemed like it must have been at least an 8-point turn, but they finally got the bug turned around and headed back down the street away from the ramp. We laid in bed marveling at how miraculous it was that Tom managed to get the truck and trailer turned around in a spot that required that much work to get a VW bug headed in the opposite direction.

We also had a few wakeups because the neighborhood was full of dogs. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but all of Mexico is full of dogs. All the dogs in Brownsville were a good warmup, but Brownsville is nothing compared to Mexico as far as dogs go. They’re everywhere. Some are pets, some are working dogs, and some are just strays that get by okay because it’s warm enough and there’s enough food that they don’t starve – although it looks like it’s close sometimes. It’s been a little bit of a problem at a few of the places where we’ve stopped, because our dogs get all wound up when they see other dogs, especially loose ones, running around. The saving grace is that the Mexican dogs could give a rat’s ass about our dogs, and if any of them get a little bit curious, all we have to do is turn around and look at them and they generally turn tail and run. Tom and I have discovered that our Spanish skills are lacking, but we’re apparently literate in dog talk in any language. Anyway, every time we took our dogs out of the camper on the street, the neighborhood dogs would line up a little way down the block, and follow us, but they would always keep their distance. However, as soon as our dogs were in the camper, the camper would be surrounded. Needless to say, all of our tires were well watered this morning, and a few times during the night our dogs woke up and let us know that the other dogs were still out there. As we were driving north this morning, all three dogs were sacked out since none of them got a good night’s sleep the night before.

We were awake at 4 am, but set the alarm and tried to sleep til 6:00. By 7:30 we’d walked the dogs, eaten, packed, had the trailer ready to move, and we were on the road.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Palenque ruins

The Maya Bell seems to be kind of college hangout, with lots of dredlocks, tattoos, body piercings, gauzy fabrics, and people drifting around aimlessly, as well as the standard mix of tourists and retirees wintering in Mexico. It also has a beautiful big pool, and a nice restaurant with live entertainment every night. It caters to a wide range of customers; they have regular hotel rooms, RV hookups, cabanas, small houses that can be rented long term, palapas covering tent sites, and open tent sites. We took Nock and Lou for a run in the morning since we planned to keep them in the trailer for the afternoon while we toured the ruins, and when we got back to the Maya Bell we decided to go for a swim since I had stepped off the edge of a curb, fallen, and skinned my knee.

We met a woman who was swimming in the pool; she and her husband drive to Mexico from near Montpelier, Vermont, every winter and spend two months at the Maya Bell. She calls the campers “the mushroom crowd,” which is as fitting a description as any. We figured we were meant to meet Virginia, and her husband, Herbert, since we had so many intersections in our lives. They live in Vermont, and are active in the Bring the Soldiers Home effort, so we were surprised they didn’t know Nicole. Then she told us that they’re active with the humane society, and she answered a lot of our questions about dogs in Mexico – which are everywhere – and said that every year they take one or two home, and always end up putting them down because they either have incurable heartworm or a disease caused by tick bites that can’t be treated once it is established. Then we found out that Herbert graduated from Cornell, very near my alma mater Wells, and that he was there at about the same time as UBill. They were also the first people we had seen in Mexico, other than each other, who walked their dog on a leash and didn’t just let her run, a beautiful pointer named Moon. They have an ’89 Ford truck, and Herbert surveyed our rig and pronounced it “a beauty,” so we figured we were good to go.

We spent the afternoon touring the Palenque ruins, which are very impressive. We’ve both toured Caracol in Belize and Tikal in Guatemala, and Tom has been to Xanatunich in Belize. Palenque is interesting not only because it’s slightly different since it was a different city, but also because the level of restoration is different, and varies even in the different areas of the ruin. Some of it is as completely restored as possible, and some has been left as archeologists found it. I decided that while I love books about archeology, and love to tour the archeological sites, I’m definitely not patient enough to ever be an archeologist. I can appreciate the “one bite at a time” approach to putting things back together, but putting together entire cities composed of huge stone buildings, when you don’t even have a picture to work from, is way beyond anything I could hope to accomplish. Tom is more patient than I am, and he says he would have a hard time too, so we know it takes a really patient, special type of person to do the work we see at the ruins.

Tom took a video on our still camera, which I hope to post when I figure out how. The video quality is bad, but if you turn up the volume you can hear the howler monkeys. This was the first time on our trip that we’ve heard the howler monkeys and felt that we were in the jungle. It was very eerie, because we had gone to a part of the ruins that have not been restored, and we just happened to be there by ourselves, and the monkeys started. They’re only about 20 to 25 pounds apiece – about Louie size – but they sound like something huge and prehistoric. I read Michael Crichton’s book Congo at the beginning of this trip, and standing in the ruins with the howler monkeys in the background was a very Crichton-esque moment.

When we returned from the ruins, we talked to some of the other people staying in the campground. It was interesting, because most of the tourists we’re meeting on this trip are Canadian; we’re running into very few Americans, which is a shame, because everywhere we’ve been has been not only nice, but very interesting. We parked next to a couple who had shipped their rig via boat from France to Brazil, and were driving around the world. Their rig is a Toyota Land Cruiser with a custom camper module on the back; Tom has determined that when we do our next big tour, this is how we’re doing it, since it’s 4WD and smaller than what we’re driving/pulling, so it could get into almost anywhere. It’s fun to stand around and talk to people; a group of us were talking in some mixture of Spanish, English, French, and a little German, and we all understood what was being said.


Tom's perfect truck, shipped from France and headed around the world




We decided to run to town to get some groceries, which was an adventure in itself. We had foraged when we were on the Emerald Coast, but it was a small town. The actual town of Palenque has turned into a fairly big town, and we were running all over trying to get everything on our list. We were stopping at all the pharmacies to try to get a big band aid for my knee which was oozing, without any luck, and then we went to a store that had some of everything and I got my 10” tortilla press, which is the only thing I wanted to buy to keep from Mexico. We also found a mango stand, where we got a few mangoes for breakfast (which turned out to be absolutely perfect) and a bag of green mango with salt, cayenne, and lime, which is way yummier than it sounds and is probably one of my favorite foods. Then we went to the produce market, then to the beer store, then to a small regular market where we couldn’t find the milk until we realized that it’s in boxes with dry goods, not in jugs in the refrigerator section, then off to the SuperChe, the big supermarket chain in Mexico for everything we couldn’t find anywhere else.

We got back to the campground and made dinner, and listened to the live Mexican music from the bar as we went to sleep.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Palenque

We got up and got hot showers and got on the road about 8:15 with 815 miles on the truck. We went back to where we had turned off the main road the night before to find our way to the next town, and after driving in a circle through the town, asking a guy who wanted our watches, or at least money for a soda, for directions, and then finding someone who could give us good directions, we found out that the campground was already on the road out of town. The guy who gave us directions had mentioned a ramp, and we didn’t know what that meant in Spanish, until we got to it and found out that it’s just that, a ramp, but not a highway ramp like we’re used to. It must have been almost 45 degrees, and about 25 yards, and it went from the street we were on at lake level up to the road around the lake. Tinkerbell (that’s the truck’s name, since she’s so dainty and we figure it’s fairy dust that’s keeping her going) managed to get the whole load up from a dead stop with a lot of coaxing and Tom mashing the accelerator all the way to the floor (and trying to put it through the floorboards for a little more power), and we were on our way through more incredible scenery.

Driving was much better than the previous two days, and we seem to be learning how to pack (although we have no idea what condition our dishes will be in when we get to Belize and unpack the boxes), and we actually underestimated our range. We had thought we’d stop at Villahermosa, the previous day’s destination, but we hit that city, the capital of the Tabasco state, at about 2:30, and decided to keep going. We did another map check and found that the town of Palenque is known for it’s archeological ruins, and made it from Villahermosa to Palenque in about 2 ½ hours, arriving around 5:00 with a total of 1090 miles on the truck in Mexico (another amazing 275 mile day in just about 8 hours of driving, and pretty to boot). We were pulled over for our first ag check on the way to Palenque, but they only wanted to know if we were carrying chickens. When we said no, they sent us on our way.

We picked a campground out of the Sanborn’s guide, which turned out to be a rustic RV campground/hostel/hotel about a half mile from the gate of the park with the ruins. It’s very nice, with a restaurant that has live entertainment, and a pool, and we’re planning to stay another day to see the ruins and see what else there is to do around here.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Catemaco

We took off around 8:00, planning to head to Villahermosa, with 544 miles on the truck since we entered Mexico. The roads had beautiful scenery, but the condition of the roads was pretty consistently bad. Our 50mph from Thursday was down to about 35mph, and it was still bumpy. This was even on the toll roads, which were pretty expensive – we went about 270 miles, and it cost $41US. However, the route from the campground into Veracruz was breathtaking, with high, steep mountains on our right, and cliffs down to the gulf on our left. We made it into Veracruz, which is a beautiful city, and where we got a beep and a thumps up from a guy driving an RV from Oregon, but I managed to get us totally driving in circles because I’d read the directions, tell Tom which way to go, then change my mind and have him turn around, then figure out that I was right the first time so he’d have to turn around again. For some reason he didn’t kill me, and drove really well especially considering that the traffic in the city was very heavy, and while U-turns are allowed, the streets are narrow and it’s tough to get the truck and trailer around in one swing. We also had our first encounter with a policeman, who waved us over. We’re not sure what he wanted, although we suspect that we weren’t supposed to be driving a truck pulling a trailer in the city, but in any case when he realized we didn’t speak Spanish, he apparently decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and sent us on our way.

We finally escaped from Veracruz and got on a toll road that runs all the way from Veracruz to Villahermosa. This is when we realized that just because you’re paying to travel a road, it doesn’t mean the road is good. We stopped at a “rest area,” which is a gravel patch on the side of the road, and went in the trailer to get lunch. The trailer was a disaster. I had stupidly stored glass containers in the cabinet in the trailer, thinking that if I wedged everything in pretty tightly and didn’t put glass next to glass, everything would be fine. Wrong. The cabinet had popped open, and we had balsamic vinegar, maple syrup (not my big stash, just a small glass gift jar), honey, and Tabasco sauce all over the stove, counters, floor, the boxes we put on the floor so they wouldn’t fall off the shelf, the walls, and various other things. We decided there was nothing to do about it there, so we got our lunch and got back in the truck to replan our drive for the remainder of the day.

Since going was so much slower than we had planned, and we knew we now had a big cleanup job ahead of us, we looked at the map and found a small town named Catemaco that the owner of the El Corsario campground had recommended. We ditched the directions we had been using and got off the tollroad on a road that looked like a quick drive to Catemaco through two other small towns. Wrong again. The road on the map was a twisty, turny, narrow, potholed road through the mountains. At one pointed we stopped at a Pemex (Petroleum Mexico) to make sure we were on the right road, and while the people at the Pemex were very helpful, a drunk followed Tom back to the truck and wanted 50 pesos ($5 US) for “helping” him. Another man getting gas smiled at us, Tom gave the drunk only 10 pesos, then the other patron ran the guy off, and we were on our way again.


Peace! If nothing else is accomplished on this trip, Lou and Mel are getting along better. Maybe it's because Lou has heard us tell so many people that Mel is 10 and won't last much longer.






When we got to Catemaco, it was well worth the drive. The trailer park we were heading for turned out to be the parking lot of a restaurant, La Ceiba, and it was right on the most gorgeous lake, with wide sidewalks winding right along the lake shore, and restaurants and hotels on the other side of the street. We parked and decided the mess could wait, and took the dogs for a long walk along the lake shore. Mel was feeling much better after two days of rest, and that was a good thing because everybody wanted to know if he was a biter, what kind of dog he was, how hold he was, whether or not he was neutered, and could they take his picture with their cell phone, so he had to withstand a lot of attention. We also ran into lots of men who wanted to take us on boat tours of the lake, which probably would have been beautiful, but we decided that since we had no idea what they’d be showing us, it probably wasn’t worth the time.




We got back to the camper and did the cleanup, which turned out to be not that bad, and which I probably should have done anyway. Everything was wiped down, and the remaining glass jars were bubble wrapped and put in a box. The camper now smells a little like balsamic vinegar, but on the grand scale of things, that’s not a bad smell. We found that we’re getting better at understanding people, and had a long talk with the lot’s night watchman, who thought Mel was a caballito (a pony – have we heard this before?). Someone had asked me the day before if we fed the dogs horsemeat, and I had tried, unsuccessfully, I think, to tell them I was a horsewoman. So, since this man had brought up the subject of horses, we asked him what I was, and he said a horsewoman in Mexico is a dama montadora. Tom looked it up in our Spanish/English dictionary, and it loosely translates to “lady in a saddle.” I guess that will do for now.

We slept with the background noise of teenage boys with boomboxes in loud cars cruising the street and whistling to the girls on the sidewalk, but after a long day in the car – about 275 miles over 9 ½ hours – we didn’t have any trouble sleeping.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

El Corsario Campground

We got up and had breakfast, and went to take the dogs on the beach. Apparently Mel overdid it playing on the beach the day before, because he could barely move. He had to be dragged out to do his business, and then he spent most of the day on the bed giving us dirty looks. This didn’t prevent us from taking the Jacks for a two-hour walk on the beach, which all of us thoroughly enjoyed since it was nice to be stretching our legs rather than sitting in the truck. Lou has turned into a champion body surfer, and we were amazed at how quickly he got the hang of the surf, and really seemed to like it. He would trot out through the shallow water of the outgoing waves, jump any small waves that were coming in, and when a wave too big to jump approached, he would turn tail and start swimming, letting the wave pick him up and carry him to shore. He’d land, shake off, turn around, and do it again. Nock didn’t quite get it; she’d follow him, but she wouldn’t turn around when a bigger wave came, so it would get her in the face, then she’d stand there shaking her ears until another came and got her, then she’d just turn around and run for shore. She ended up standing where the waves were always shallow and barking at Lou, and at Tom who was farther out doing the same thing as Lou in deeper water. I was a little chilly, so I stayed with Nock and just got my ankles wet.





On our walk, we watched a boatload of fishermen land their boat on the beach, and start throwing out sharks which were all about 3 to 4 feet long. When we got back, we looked up “shark” in our Spanish/English dictionary, found that it is “tiburon,” so we went back into town to a different pescaderia, asked for it, and got it. We also went to the “minisuper” for cereal and juice. I was looking at the Quaker Oats and noticed fresh packaged oats on the shelf below. I picked a package up, turned it over and saw a hole, then checked the shelf and found mouse poop. I bought the Quaker Oats in an intact package. We stopped at the produce stand again, then went to the tortilleria and got a big stack of tortillas for about 40 cents. Then we went to the mean stand for beef and got a couple of steaks sliced off a hunk of cow to throw in the fridge so we wouldn’t have to stop for a day or two for groceries.

We went back to the campground and repacked the clothes that had dumped the day before, which was a good opportunity to reorganize, again. We think we’re finally done with the cold weather clothes, although we each kept out a couple of pairs of long pants and a few long sleeved shirts. The rest went in bags and got stuffed in the truck rather than in the camper. We took another walk on the beach, had a fish, tortilla, and guacamole dinner with Pete, and hit the hay after hot showers in the very nice campground bathhouse. We were amazed that they had hot showers, since there were only four other campers. One was a couple from Alberta, who had a rig very similar to ours. They said they’d toured Mexico this way before, and that it really helped to “fly below the radar.” The water may have been heated because there were a couple of parties of people who lived about two hours away, who just came for the day to enjoy the beach and the pool.

We found that Mel is a big attraction, and opens doors for us to talk to lots of people. We had a very lively conversation with some of the party people, about dogs, places to visit around there, and life in general. We are amazed at how well we can communicate with people who don’t speak any more English than we do Spanish, as long as everybody is willing to take the time and try to figure out how to understand and be understood. It was funny because one of my only problems with camper life is that it’s pretty hairy between me and the three dogs, and one of the women we were talking to asked that exact question, and we all had a good laugh. They asked why we neutered a beautiful dog like Mel, and I pantomimed lifting my leg and peeing on a pole, and they all immediately understood and laughed. I’m much less frustrated than I thought I would be communicating with people who only speak other languages. We also had a good talk about what to do in the area with the campground owner, who actually spoke very good English. He sat with us and our map, pointed out towns of interest, and explained why they’re interesting. Most of that area is visited only by Mexicans, which actually makes it a great vacation spot. The beaches aren’t spotless and white, but they’re clean, and you can walk for miles and not see anybody. You can also walk in and out of the shops in the open air market and not see another American, just people who live there out doing their Saturday errands.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Emerald Coast, Monto Gordo, just north of Nautla: El Corsario Campground


We had planned to pull out of Tampico around 7:30, but as Tom did the last walk-around check of the truck and trailer, he found that one of the trailer tires was flat. Fortunately, he had bought a tire repair kit while we were in Georgia, so he took the tire off, fixed it, rolled it across the street to the local vulcanizadore, marked by a big yellow tractor tire, had it filled, and put it back on the trailer. The exercise took about an hour, and in that time, Pete, a retired guy from Louisville, Kentucky, who had parked next to us the night before and who is traveling alone, started talking with us, and we decided to travel to the next stop together. Tom and I didn’t really know where we wanted to go, and Pete had found a campground located on the Emerald Coast in his guidebook, so we pulled out behind Pete.

Roads were a little rougher than they had been the day before, which slowed us down a little, but we didn’t think much of it until we pulled over after a toll road entrance for lunch. We opened the trailer door, and found that our boxes of clothes, which had been stored on the shelf above the bed, had fallen down and were spread all over the floor. We stuffed them back in the boxes, left the boxes on the floor, and continued on our way. We stopped to fill up the fuel tank somewhere along the way, and were delighted to find that diesel is only about $2 a gallon, far less than we had expected.





We arrived at El Corsario campground without further mishaps around 3:30 after traveling about 250 miles. The campground is right on the ocean, and the campsites are in the palm trees right behind the dunes; we could see the beach and the waves from the truck. They also have two pools with slides, and hot showers. We parked, took the dogs for a walk on the beach, and let them all have a good run, chasing sandpipers and coconuts in the surf. We decided to unhook the truck and head into town for groceries, which isn’t as simple as going to Wegman’s. Since we were right on the Gulf, we decided to get fish, so we found a Pescateria, or fish market, which are spread up and down the main shopping strip. We didn’t know how to say any type of fish in Spanish, so the guys showed Tom what was in all the coolers. He didn’t know what any of the fish we normally buy already filleted look like as fish, so he took a stab, picked out a couple of fish, and had the guy fillet them. We think it was snapper. While he was waiting, they give him a cup of their ceviche and crackers, which he was nice enough to come out to the truck to share with me. They spoke no English, but with Tom’s limited Spanish and a lot of sign language, they managed to offer Tom cats, which he refused because he said the dogs would eat them, then they offered him new dogs that don’t eat cats, which he refused, so then they offered him a gun, which he also refused since he’d rather not spend the rest of his life in a Mexican jail. We’re not sure if they offered him the gun to kill the dogs that kill cats, or just to see what he would do, but in any case he got back in the car with just the fish. We then went to the produce stand, where we walked off with two bags full of avocados, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and bananas for about $2US. We went back to the campground, made dinner, and decided to spend another day at El Corsario to regroup, repack, and relax.