Archive for July, 2012

We had a run in with the law in Durango!

Posted: July 28, 2012 by Central America Overland Expeditions in Expedition/Travel
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**Note** I do not have many pictures in this post. Due to the situation outlined below, you will see we were much too busy to take pictures. If you have to have pictures, please read another one of our posts. Thanks!

At Some time during the afternoon, we decided to head out to a campsite that promised hot water spas. It was approximately 30 miles to the first site or 65 to the second. We figured we could not lose. If we couldn’t find the first, then we had the second as back up. We left Durango going south-east down a small hwy 23. I use highway lightly as this is more like a secondary back road we might find in the states. Not in a hurry, we enjoyed the sights and navigated the topes, in the few towns that we came to. The towns equated to some houses and a few businesses selling tacos and empanadas.

As we left the last town in our rearview mirror, the roads became increasingly winding. Fewer people were around and only an occasional taxi or motorbike would pass us. Ahead we saw the mountainous skyline looming. Our GPS, not having Mexico maps installed, only showed that the road was going to snake through the mountain like the plastic straw you might give a kid to sip their juice from. The road, winding back on its self with each turn, almost heading back in the opposite direction before sharply maneuvering in the other direction.

We managed to make it through this s-curve debauchery without incident, except a little car sickness. Out the other side we began looking for the first hot springs location. Trying to decipher each sign, making out each word that we could, piecing it together to see if it was ‘the one”. We drove a ways farther and soon realized that we should have already found it. There had been no apparent sign indicating camping or hot springs.

Fortunately we had a back up plan. We would continue on in before dark and make it to the next location. It was at the end of hwy 23, actually a dead-end. There was no way we could miss this one right?

As we were coming into the area of town where we expected to find the campground, we noticed a utility worker tending to a down power line on the side of the road. We didn’t think much of it until, we noticed people sitting outside their houses and businesses. Apparently, the main line had been damaged in a storm earlier that day. The whole town was without power. Undaunted, we trudged on further out-of-town to find our campsite. The road began to narrow sharply. There was barely enough room for one car to pass through. It was a two-way street, but you had to pull over to let anyone through from the opposite direction. The houses were literally feet from the street. It was a little unsettling as there was no cross streets for “escape” if need be. People were watching us drive by, as if we were the grand marshalls in a parade. It appeared that there may have been a festival in progress before the power outage. Many people lined the side of the streets.

We pulled out the other side of town and noticed on the GPS, that we were at the end. Right about then, we saw where a large rock slide had fallen and covered the road. Debris, mud, and gravel still littered the road as we traversed the piles of rubble. Larger piles on the side of the road indicated they had made an attempt to clear it. The road became clearer as we passed the site, but we soon realized we had not found our campsite again. We opted to turn back toward Durango to try to get a room for the night before pitch darkness fell. As we were pulling back into town on the narrow street, a new Chevy truck with four younger men in it pulled up to Bernard in the lead, and said “What are you doing out here”, as he shined a flashlight in his face. I said out loud to myself and Angela, “Aww Bernard, do not stop”! We did not need any problems. Fortunately, Bernard told them we were looking to camp. He was told there was no camping around there. We gladly started back toward Durango. We headed back through the mountains, and small towns, and desolate areas. It seemed to take longer, especially since we were all tired and irritable, so there were no conversations.

As we finally pulled into Durango, it was getting dark and we could see police lights ahead. “Great, just what we need, another checkpoint stop.” No, this time it was a road block. The road was completely impassable, due to a large fair that was going on that evening. Cars were u turning to go another direction. Of course there were no detour signs to follow, so we decided to follow the cars. Around the fairgrounds we went. So far, so good. The couple of cars that were in front of us were taxis. Surely they would know their way around this road block. That is exactly what Bernard was thinking when he followed them into the fairground field, through the parking area, into a super swamp mud hole and out the other side of the field.

We exited the gate and immediately realized we were not in Kansas any more. The road was more of a two-track rutted trail. I have been to off-road parks with fewer obstacles than this! We were on a greasy, pot hole, rutted, wet trail that passed by small houses just outside the fair gates. Ok, it must be a small subdivision that we must pass through to get back to the main road. All of a sudden the taxis gained momentum and began criss crossing in different directions. We latched onto one and followed. We passed homes with people standing outside, almost as if we were the main event for the fair tonight. We were doing water crossings that would make any overlander proud. I looked at my floor boards several times expecting to see filthy brown water/ sludge come streaming in. We didn’t drive through the mud puddles, we drove into them and back out the other side. All the while we were on what appeared to be streets in a neighborhood. Somewhere in there we also came across a fire burning. I do not know if a house was on fire or if the locals were roasting marshmallows, laughing at us gringos trying to find our way out of the maze.

After what seemed like hours, we circled around for probably the 5th time, and finally found a paved road. Bernard took the road and then, to my chagrin, he whipped a u turn and headed back into the neighborhood. Now, I know Bernard like to play off-road, but this was ridiculous, without radio communication, all I could do was follow. All of a sudden we were back in the grassy field of the fair grounds. Bernard pulled over, threw up his hands and said, “I don’t know, I’m lost”!

I decided to lead and try my hand at getting us back out in the direction that we came from (back by the road block). Maybe by now they had cleared it and we could go the direction we knew. As we pulled up to the intersection, it was clear that was not the case. Red and blue lights pierced the dark sky warning of the detour. I pulled up to the intersection behind another officer directing traffic to see if he might offer directions. Bernard pulled in behind me.

I turned off my headlights, leaving on only the parking lights, so as not to blind him. He cautiously approached the passenger side, so Angela rolled down her window. I asked “Se Habla English”? No, he said. Great! I began in mixed Spanish and English trying to ask for directions, but it was not working. He spoke into his radio and indicated someone was on their way that knew English.

A couple of minutes later, another officer showed up with his lights flashing as well. We were starting to make quite a spectacle of ourselves sitting on the edge of the road with two police cars and lights, while all of the people exiting the fairgrounds drove by. The second officer spoke some English. He spoke enough that we could tell him where we were trying to go, and get directions. He finally said, “Follow other officer, he take you”.

We hopped in our trucks, started them up, and then grabbed for the gear shifter. It would not budge. I pressed the brake even harder trying to release the lever. Still, nothing. I turned the ignition off, restarted and attempted to shift. No luck. Meanwhile the officer is sitting in the street waiting for me to follow. I tried everything I knew. Unfortunately, it seemed as if maybe a fuse was blown or something not electrically releasing the gear selector. I got out of my truck and let Bernard know what was going on.

The officer was waving his hand to follow him. I waved back and said, “it wont go”. Both officers drove back to where we were. I tried to explain it to the English-speaking officer who said “ Oh, I know”. He proceeded to jump into the front seat and press the brake pedal. As he did that, he aggressively pulled on the handle. He tried again, each time increasing the grip on the lever, as if he man handled it, maybe it would magically work.

What happened next was a similar situation, only now we were joined by two additional officers. At this time, I am sure all of the passer-byers thought they had encountered a huge drug bust. There were police cars, lights blazing all around us. Traffic was being diverted, by yet another one. It was quite a scene. Each time a new officer approached, the English-speaking officer would tell them the problem. Each one of them jumping into the front seat to try to “muscle” the lever into gear.

Lights everywhere!

After this went on a while, one of the officers began canvassing the traffic looking for a bilingual attendee. Finally, they approached with a girl in her early 30’s. She said, “They asked me to translate for them. What is the problem”? I explained about the detour and the new problem with the gear selector. She relayed the info, and informed us that they had called a mechanic and tow truck. I was not very interested in having a mechanic work on the vehicle on the side of the road, not knowing their credentials. All we needed was a hack job that would lead to more problems. She informed us that the tow truck driver was the mechanic also.

When the truck arrived, the officers filled him in to the situation. We spoke to the girl who was translating and she told us of a good hotel, and of the officers plans to get us there. We also, amazingly, learned she was from Gainesville Georgia, only here visiting relatives. Boy was she a God send! All the way from our home state of Georgia just to translate for us! She wished us well and left, knowing the truck was there and all was well.

I tried my best to communicate with the tow truck driver. He was all over my truck. Under the hood, under the frame, under the dash. He was just under everything! I grabbed the book and went to the fuse page, trying to locate which fuse might operate the release. Finally, I showed it to him, and he went under the dash to try to locate any burned fuse. We worked together in silence, a little grunt or groan here or there, checking each one, until we determined they were all good. He then decided he would tow it where we needed it. I told the officer, it could not be towed with the type of tow truck he brought. It was the style that only picked up two wheels. I either needed a flatbed, which still would be difficult with it stuck in park, or would have to remove one of the driveshafts.

The scene

The driver quickly dove under the truck, and began working. I thought he was pulling the driveshaft. As it turns out, he removed the shift cable from the selector so we could manually place it into drive. He borrowed a 13 mm wrench from me, and within minutes we were ready to go. I asked him what was the charge and he held up his hand, jumped into his truck and was gone! Talk about service. He just did what it took to get me going, never charging or trying to make a buck towing me. I stood there perplexed. Where are all of the bad people of Mexico?

We were finally ready to follow the officer to the hotel. He motioned for us to follow him. He left his lights on and we were off! He professionally navigated back streets avoiding traffic snarls, and turning many times throughout our nearly 20 minute convoy through Durango. We pulled up to the hotel, and the officer walked us inside. He spoke with the clerk, apparently letting him know we needed a room. After checking the computer, we were told, they did not have one available. The officer did not miss a beat, he motioned us to follow him. We turned up the street and over a few more blocks to another hotel. He again jumped out of his truck, ran inside and spoke to the clerk. This time we had a room! Knowing we could take it from there, he walked over to me, held out his hand into a big hearty handshake, one you would get from an old friend. He smiled largely, and then was out to the curb to say good-bye to Bernard and Angela. This man went above and beyond the call of duty. Not only for his position, but for mankind. Here we were three foreigners, that didn’t speak his language, broke down, and yet he stayed with us until we were safe in a hotel.  I’m beginning to believe God has placed these people in our paths. I Love America, but would not necessarily expect the same selfless acts as the tow truck driver and officers showed us that night!

It turns out the next day after a little research on the internet, that my brake light switch, which also controls the safety release on the gear lever was bad. I went to Auto Zone (yes they have them in Mexico), to try to get one. Unfortunately, they did not stock it, but we were told they could get it in 3 days. We would be in Mazatlan in three days, so, they made arrangements to have it sent to the store there. I was equally impressed at the service of this store. The person helping us followed up by email later making sure we were able to get the part. We did and it is back in the truck working great now, though I did have to manufacture a part to hold the shift cable to the shift lever. Thanks to Auto Zone they had a part I could modify. I couldn’t ask for a better situation being 2000 miles from home in another country!



After driving down the Devils Spine from Durango to Mazatlan, just at the bottom of the last mountain I started smelling burning brakes. The Devils Spine is rural route 40 that runs across Mexico east to west, through the mountains and down to the Pacific Coast of Mexico. It’s normally about a 5 hour trip that really tests your vehicles’, brakes, transmission, suspension and driving skills. We dodged a few bad accidents, animals on the road, zipped around very slow moving 18 wheelers, and jockeyed for position with crazy motor cycle drivers. Also, there where mountain bikers, falling rocks, and huge speed bumps (topes) through every little sleepy village we entered and lots of construction. This is not the ideal driving situation for a fully equipped 7,500 pound expedition vehicle. At first, I thought the smell was from other trucks, but no it was me. How could this be? I had put new brake pads on all the way around, new rotors on the rear and flushed the system before we hit the road. Well, that’s just the way the Devil’s Spine claims its victims. No matter what you do to prepare, you just have to take it slow and stop every few hundred kilometers to let your braking system cool down. In addition to the smell of burning brakes, I also noticed that it was getting harder to brake and my foot was almost going to the floor. As we descended the last bit of twisty, curvy mountain roads, now my foot was to floor and I knew I would have to do an emergency stop somewhere soon. With the brakes smoking, and the smoke and smell of burning brakes filling the cabin, I was frantically pumping the brake pedal not making any difference in performance, “Scott” I yelled over the radio in panic mode! I was hoping that he heard me as the radios were losing battery power and all I heard back from Scott was some squelch and crackling. I hope and thought he got the message, “I have no brakes!” Finally, I saw that Scott did get the message and I somehow managed to stop the truck just before running into someone’s house. There was an old lady sitting on her front porch, plucking a chicken and I’m sure she was quite amused by the spectacle of two expedition vehicles doing an emergency stop in her front yard, smoking brakes and all. I was just glad that I didn’t plow into her house.
We then popped the hood and determined that I still had brake fluid, but my foot was going all the way to the floor. After inspecting everything and letting the brakes cool, we decided to keep on pushing through and just slow it way down, and I would start using the transmission, emergency brake, and braking very lightly to slow myself down. We still had over 40 kilometers to go to Mazatlan. Very slowly, we made it into the beach town of Mazatlan. Yeah! But this was the start of another problem!
Once we arrived into Mazatlan, its Sunday traffic at its worse. Everybody and his brother, sister, uncle, mother, aunt, and cousin are out driving around. Traffic is horrendous and I’m still worried about having limited braking. Then, to add fuel to the fire we get lost in Mazatlan looking for a way to get to Stone Island. We had read in our Mexico camping guide that Stone Island, which is a little island across from Mazatlan was the place to be. A much laid back island with a cool beach town atmosphere where the locals go. After riding around Mazatlan for what seemed like hours we finally found our way. We had to go back out of town and head towards the airport. Then, we had to take a very bad back road through Mango fields.
While driving through the Mango fields, it had to have been the most jarring drive I’ve ever made, but it did smell good. With all the bumping, jarring and navigating super mud holes I began to think to myself any moment now the check engine light is going to come on and I will be stuck back here. I look in my rear view mirror and can barely see the headlights on the Discovery, the dust is so thick. Plus all the dust, mud, sink holes and bumping around was not helping the braking situation, and now it was getting dark. Here we go, driving at night in Mexico is a no-no, as there are many animals, cars with little or no lights, people walking on the road, limited signage, topes, and many other hazards. Just as my mind starts to wander about the no driving at night thing I see in the distance what I think is a stamped of horses coming right at me. With the radio communication totally out now, all I could do was pump the brake a few times to kinda give Scott the signal that trouble lie ahead. More braking, just what I needed. Quickly, I flip on all of the lights, driving lights, high beams, fog lights and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Here they come, a stampede coming right at me, with now where to turn off. Nothing but Mango trees on either side. So what hurts less, horses or Mango trees I though. Don’t panic I say to myself, what’s the worst that can happen. My Land Cruiser is up armored with a bull bar, but a horse is a little taller than a bull and I could end up with a hoof in my mouth I thought. Just as I begin to almost come to a complete stop to navigate my way through the horses I see a cowboy in the back and he is coming fast up to the front of the wild heard and making them give way so we can continue. Phew, dodged a bullet on that one.
Finally we make it to Stone Island, in complete darkness and we park right on the beach to try and figure out where we are going to camp for the night. We started asking a few locals for directions and if there is a place to tent camp on the beach with our vehicles. Surprisingly most of the locals here speak some English and they tell me to go down this road, take a left at a big tree, but don’t pass the speed bump and there is a lady there that will let you camp at her place on the beach. It’s now very dark and there are animals in the road, people walking, ATV’s and mopeds all zipping around us, and no street lights or signs. We go about a block, and I stop and ask again, and we are told we just passed the place again. Augh! In my attempt to find the camp ground, I see this small hotel and I decide to go in there and ask for directions for the 5th time now in 2 blocks. Then, Scott shouts out the window “Angela has got to go to the bathroom!” So, now the pressure is on to find this place even faster. When I walk into this hotel to ask for directions, A couple are sitting there and the guy breaks out in perfect English and says “ I will show you, follow me !” “The camping place is right around the corner.” How many times have I heard that tonight? He goes to get his ATV but it is blocked in the hotel parking lot, so he gets in my truck and we started talking about Land Cruisers and he tells me has a 2000 model year Land Cruiser. “Cool” I say, a fellow Land Cruiser enthusiast. Then he says how he has been on the island for 20 years, and he’s from Wisconsin and wanted to get away from those harsh winters, plus after Desert Shield/Desert Storm he decided he would move to Mexico looking for a slower pace of life and a warmer climate. Now, I am totally in disbelief to find out this information. When we finally get to the camp ground on the beach, we get out of my truck and I tell him to check out my license place. In disbelief, Gary is standing there looking at my Desert Storm license plate and we become instant friends. He says there is no such thing as coincidence and I know for a fact that he is right.
Now Gary and I are at the camping place and we can’t find the lady that runs it. We are parked right on the beach and I didn’t notice the tide is coming, because it’s dark. We’ve only been walking around for a few minutes looking for the camping lady, and now I we get back to the truck and I’m looking at the ocean water slapping against my wheels. Panic sets in again! I start thinking my truck is going to start sinking any moment now. A sinking Land Cruiser on the beach at night is not the kind of scenario I want to think about right now even if the brakes are bad. Meanwhile, Scott and Angela are sitting in their truck waiting for Gary and I to find the camping lady. I run over to them and holler “We gotta get outta here now! The tide is coming!” To make matters worse we have pulled in, in such a way that we have to make u-turns in order to get off the beach. We didn’t air down our tires or anything for traction, so this situation could turn out bad. Just how many ATV’s would it take to pull out two expedition vehicles out of the sucking sand? I don’t know and don’t want to find out! Finally, somehow we manage in the dark to make u-turns around on the beach with the tide slapping at out wheels and not get stuck! Thank you Lord!
Then Gary says, “My wife Ana and I own a Hotel and Restaurant and why don’t you guys just stay here tonight and camp on the beach tomorrow.” What? I say in disbelief. I was just about ready to throw a sleeping bag down on a sand dune and go to sleep, as this has been the most hectic day so far, just about everything that could go wrong did. Getting lost, loosing brakes, driving at night into a heard of horses on a desolate back road, almost getting stuck in the high tide on the beach at night, who would have thought expeditioning could have been so hard?
Once we get back to the hotel, Ana and Gary go into hyper mode showing us where to park the trucks, our rooms, pointing us towards a restaurant to get something to eat, and telling us “ Get some rest, we will see you guys in the morning.” They know we are tired. Gary says he has driven the Devils Spine a lot of times and he knows what we are feeling. Oh, and then Gary says we could have drove 8 minutes right down the beach to the island and have not taken the back road!
Well all I can say is the good man upstairs is really looking out for us! Somehow, someway we ended up at a fantastic hotel on an island with great people looking after us!

For the next few days we will be staying put to catch up on some maintenance, rest, and relaxation. For me, more than three panic attacks a day makes me want to find the nearest Corona stand!
Thanks for following us along as we start out travels down the Pacific Coast of Mexico, and if you have any truly trying and harrowing travel experiences we’d love to hear them.

Monterrey to Durango-A harrowing experience!

Posted: July 23, 2012 by Central America Overland Expeditions in Expedition/Travel

We packed up to leave Hildago first thing in the morning and met Homero as we were pulling out. Bernard pulled out a bag of clothes, that Jan from Houston had sent with us to distribute to needy kids in Mexico. There were soccer shirts amongst other clothes that were desperately needed in town. We asked him to offer the clothes to the children in town and was appreciative, saying there were many needy there.

We jumped back on the toll road headed for Monterrey and we quickly made our way into the big city. I would have guessed we had just pulled into Atlanta, as the traffic was bumper to bumper. There was high-rise buildings, massive traffic, busy parking lots, of which you have to pay to park for shopping. This one idea/trend we do not need to come to the U.S.!

Monterrey madness

Monterrey Metropolis

 

We stopped at McDonald’s to access some free wifi. Of course there was little English spoken so ordering was a treat. Somehow we managed to get our order across and within a few minutes were accessing the internet to “catch up”. After a little hassle getting the code, we were helped by another bilingual customer. We were able to Skype and email easily from this location. We ended up spending a couple of hours there, deciding on our next destination. We decided Saltillo would be a good distance to stop for the night. We found a hotel on-line that said they allowed campers to set up behind their hotel. As we were leaving we caught the tailend of a Police drive by. They are menacing looking with their black outfits, faces covered in black masks and machine guns standing in the back of the trucks!

Policia Federales

We hopped on the Libre highway (free highway) headed out. As we left Monterrey, we began to immediately climb into the mountains. They were pretty gradual so not much of a strain on the vehicles. Climbing up and looking back offered a beautiful view of the city, though we were happy to be out of the traffic quagmire. We were looking to get away from the madness of our daily busy life, and this was a little too close to home for our new-found desire to be laid back.

Leaving the big city of Monterrey

Headed into the mountains outside of Monterrey

We pulled into Saltillo and found the hotel rather easily. After speaking with the receptionist she walked us back to the spot they allowed campers. It wasn’t much to look at as it was a paved parking lot, with no trees, and no water or electric hook ups. The bathroom was across the parking lot, not too inconvenient, but not ideal. We could have adjusted with no problems, but were told it would be 350 pesos for each vehicle. This seemed really high especially since it was only a necessity stop as opposed to a desired spot. We decided against it, as we walked back up front, Bernard, half jokingly asked the girl, “Can we park in your yard”? She smiled and never answered. I guess that meant “No”.

Saltillo Mexico- Bienvenidos!

GM plant in Saltillo

 

After asking and searching for a location to camp in Saltillo with no luck, we determined we may have better chances, jumping back on the road. “Surely, there would be campsites along the way headed toward Durango”.

It was now getting to be late afternoon and we wanted to be parked and set up early so as to not be on the roads after dark. You are warned not to travel after dark because of the animals, poor signage, and topes (massive speed bumps). These speed bumps are placed randomly where they please, to slow traffic down. They are also used by locals to stand next to and try to sell you their goods. Everything from papaya, to fresh-cut fruit, to taco shells, you can have it all. No need to shop, they bring it to you.

The topes are usually positioned at the beginning of a town and, as you leave town, The problem is they are poorly marked, if marked at all. Travelling along during the day and encountering these are hazardous and will rattle your brain and jar your teeth, travelling at night could cause one to go airborne! We are still getting used to slowing down for them

We pressed on trying to find a suitable place to stay. Mile after mile we only found desolate, run down areas, some of them having civilization, many seemingly abandoned. It was a little unnerving, going so many miles, not seeing people or civilization. It was not looking good for camping. The thought crossed our mind to just stop somewhere and set up camp, but our instincts didn’t allow it. We did not want to have to try to make it to Durango because it was still a couple of hours away and it was getting to be late. We had to find a place! Mile after mile after mile, nothing but desolate, scrub brush, desert landscapes. The radio was silent for hours. I knew Bernard was as tired as we were. We just wanted to find a place and call it a night.

Pretty desolate area outside Saltillo

A more populated town between Saltillo and Durango

And miles and miles of wide open spaces

 

 

We decided the only choice we had, was to press into Durango. It was getting dusk and we knew we had limited daylight left to travel. There were no towns in sight, only a scattered group of dark, vacant buildings, that seemed to be abandoned. Occasionally, we would see a few people sitting out front of these dilapidated homes enjoying the cool evening air.

Darkness set in and our senses were lit up like fireworks on the fourth of July. Any site, or sound echoed through our brains processing what we needed to do to respond. Eyes peeled for topes, and animals, secretly ignoring any thoughts put in our heads of banditos preying on gringos.

We were nearing Durango, finally we could see the city lights off in the distance! All of a sudden there was a person standing on the side of the road waving what appeared to be a flag. My heart starting beating, like bongos, at an Indian war dance. My eyes were wide open now, looking. There were men with machine guns in the road! Is this how our adventure would end? Is this the dreaded bandito encounter we had heard about?

No, it was a military checkpoint. They are common throughout Mexico. They are certainly intimidating, since we are not used to being pulled over by our military in the U.S. especially with machine gun wielding men in camo clothing. I was a little nervous as we pulled up to the stop. Could we communicate? Would we be mistaken for drug cartel in tinted window suv’s? I grabbed the newspaper article from my sun visor, which I placed there after Bernard’s success at another checkpoint. The officer approached speaking in Spanish. I handed him the paper and said “camping”. He looked at the paper and pointed, “Su”? “Yes, that’s me, and that’s him back there”, I said. “We are camping”. He showed his partner and said “oh, camping” in a heavy Spanish accent. He smiled returned the paper and waved us through. Lesson of the day, If you are going to visit another country, have an article written about you in the paper and carry it with you! It is better than a passport or visa! A picture really is worth a thousand words, in any language…

We made into the first hotel we found and hit the bed to rest up for the next day.

For pictures not found in this blog visit our Facebook page and see the “rest of the story”. We upload additional photos here: www.facebook.com/centralamericaoverlandexpeditions Please click “like” when you get there if you haven’t already. And have you added your email to the box on the left of this page? If not do it now! We will notify you each time a new entry is posted. Watch for our next post as we experienced yet another encounter with the law! This time, it wasn’t so pretty…..

Hidalgo Mexico- Not for the faint of heart!

Posted: July 21, 2012 by Central America Overland Expeditions in Expedition/Travel
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I do not even know where to begin on this one. We experienced so much in such a short period of time. We left the border heading toward Monterrey Mexico. Angela found a campsite in Hidalgo that looked interesting. We decided to head in that direction to see if we could find a place for the night.

Travelling down the highway, it was a mix bag of emotions. The sheer exhilaration and excitement over powered the butterflies, the unknown, and the nay sayers’ warnings. I soon realized that beside the fact that the signs were in Spanish, Mexico was much like back home. Traffic was merging, everyone pressing for their own position. The mile markers were in kilometers, as were the speed signs. The roads were similar to a secondary road back home. They were just a little rough, but much better than I anticipated.

Cruising down the highway most times around 110 KM, everything was going well. The concern of police singling out vehicles from the US, my senses were totally alert. All of a sudden, up ahead on the right, was the dreaded Policia vehicle sitting perpendicular to the road. I looked down, and saw I was within the speed limit, but slowed anyway just to be sure. As we rolled by it, Angela and I laughed as we saw the 2×4 stands holding up the life-size car made of plywood, but painted to look identical to a police car. I guess it served its purpose. It kept me on my toes, and slowed me down. Not to mention got my heart racing.

After many miles of seamless driving, we came to the airport that we were looking for. We made our turn onto highway 53, a toll road, headed west. After a short distance we exited to find a small toll “shack” on the side of the road. Fortunately, I had seen the sign earlier indicating that the toll was 130 pesos. I pulled up to give the operator my 100 peso bill, and two 20 peso bills. He looked confused, then shook his head and reached for the two 20 peso’s only. He made change, and offered a receipt. After looking at the receipt, I realized I had misread the sign! It was only 30 pesos. Given the opportunity to cheat me out of 100 pesos, the operator chose to do the right thing. Was there something wrong with my money? Why didn’t the operator take advantage of the situation like I have heard so many times? I felt slighted. I cannot even get cheated in the most corrupt country in the world! Or is it that not everyone in Mexico is dishonest? Time will tell.

We took many turns, and navigated unmarked roads and hazards, as we continued to Hidalgo. One of my favorite turn by turn directions found on the internet was “get off the toll road and look for a small toll booth, and pay an even smaller toll”. As we passed under the large entrance arch to Hidalgo, we realized we were no longer in Kansas! It was just the way I had envisioned a small quaint Mexican town! We snaked through town, waving at the locals, and they waving back. We turned a lot of heads, two fully outfitted expedition vehicles driving through the residential streets. We have extra gas cans on the roof rack, along with the roof top tents, and front brush guards, not your typical site here, I presume.

We began climbing an incline of a back street, passing children playing and people walking in the streets. Bernard stopped to check his Spanish abilities, asking a local if we were headed in the right direction to the park. “Si”, he said. All of a sudden, we were astounded by the rock mountain that seemed to jut up from the ground straight in front of us. It was so tall, we could hardly see the top, as we approached. The excitement was building, and Bernard and I were chattering on the radios back and forth. “Man, we finally made it”! We have arrived”! “This is what it was all about”! The air was cooler, and the breeze blew through our windows like gust of a hurricane only warmer and friendlier. The sun was bright, and very few white clouds spotted the sky. It was picturesque perfect!

Heading up towards our camp site

We made our way to the entrance of the park, realizing that we were directly at the base of the mountain. We were able to nearly drive right up to it and stop. We were in a shadow now as the mountain almost blocked the sun. The air temperature felt like an air conditioner. It was cool and relaxing, no need to have ours on in the vehicles. We hopped out to take in the sites, and stretch our legs. We decided it was a perfect time to take a new photo of our group. There were only few people in the park, and no one was there to collect the entrance fee. This is one advantage of travelling in the off-season. After circling the park, taking in the fresh mountain air, and marveling at the beauty of God’s creation, we turned around to enter the camp ground where we were to stay that night.

Our new Facebook photo!

Tallest sheer face rock wall in North America

We had our heads in the clouds

We were greeted by Homero, the park owner. He opened the gate and waved us in. He approached the window and spoke to us in Spanish. I asked, “Any English”? “Pequena” (little), he gestured with his fingers. We settled on a charge of $5.00/person for the nights’ stay. There are rooms at the campground that we were shown, however the weather was perfect for using our roof top tents. We were shown the showers and bathrooms and a grassy area to park. We were the only souls there, save Homero and his sons sitting under a tree drinking Cervasas. We were cordially introduced to the men and offered a cervasa, of which Bernard was happy to partake.

We began to set the tents up, and after a few minutes noticed that Homero and his family began to watch us from a distance. They likely, had never seen roof top tents in their campground. They wandered over as we finished setting up. We had fun communicating in our best Spanish, using a lot of hand gestures and facial expressions to talk. Homero, pulled a picture out to show us his granddaughter, a cute little girl, with a huge smile. After learning that we were from Georgia, “Atlanta”? Homero asked, we found out that his son-in-law was a pitcher for the Braves, Óscar Villarreal. He now plays for Baltimore. What a small world we live in!

Setting up camp

Angela busy setting up-enjoying the breeze!

We had camp set up and began making dinner. You guessed it! We made left over Cajun sausage over the propane single burner stove. Nothing taste better than fresh cooked food, roughing it in Mexico. The smell wafting across the brisk air was all but euphoria! We settled into our respective tents and went to sleep.

Chef Scott- Whipping up vittles

The breezes turned into strong gusts, threatening to rip our rain fly from the top of our tents. The window flap, slapped loudly against itself making a popping sound. Though it was cool, we were restless with the wind, the unknown, and getting acclimated to our surroundings. Around 4 am, we heard the loud, “Cock A doodle, do”! Are you kidding me? Where are there chickens at the base of a mountain?

We got up early and Bernard went for a run up to the mountain. Angela and I decided to skip the morning exercise and get showers. I took my bathroom bag with me hoping to get a nice shave and shower. I found quickly, that wasn’t going to happen. Being in the mountains, it makes sense that the water would come from there as well. This was proven by the crisp, cold spray that greeted me upon turning it on. Both the hot and cold knobs were turned on, but only one temperature was spewing out. You guessed it, cold! Ice-cold. It never did warm up. It is not fun juggling your soaps, shampoos, etc. while doing a little dance in and out of the ice-cold water. After I cooled down to the temperature of the water, well below chilled, I was able to finish my shower. Shaving was all together different. My facial pores puckered up like a pig waiting for lipstick. They held the hairs tighter than Scrooge holding his money.  The razor blade ripped each hair painfully, one by one. Rip!

After we were all cleaned up, and Bernard had jumped in the mountain stream water, pool to cool off after his run, Homero pulled back into the camp ground. “Buenos Dias”, he called out. We chatted for a few minutes and then we showed him the Augusta Chronicle article about our trip. He was intrigued and told us he had just returned from Guanajuato recently, a beautiful little town in Mexico. He called a friend of his, also the camp director during the busy season. I got on the phone with him at the request of Homero. “Homero really likes your tents and wants me to come take pictures of them and translate for you. How long will you be there”?

Milton, whom we learned was the friends’ name, showed up about 30 minutes later. He was bilingual and spoke very good English. He translated for a more in-depth conversation with Homero. We learned a lot about the history of Hidalgo, talked of their families and of destinations that we should see. About that time, Homero’s son showed up with his two little girls, 5 and 2. They were not shy at all and enjoyed meeting each of us. They treated us like old friends, latching onto Angela, like a new English-speaking Barbie doll. They spent a couple of hours walking around the campsite teaching each other their respective language. The girls were curious about the roof top tents and followed Angela up the ladder for a better look. Milton, Homero and his son all came over to get a better look at the tents and ask questions also. The talks were briefly interrupted as Bernard got the attention of the two little girls by performing a magic trick making a hanky disappear and re-appear. There were smiles of delight by both girls and the audience. I always say, Bernard has more tricks up his sleeve than anyone I know. I was finally able to give each of the girls a stainless steel and black ring with the Lord’s Prayer inscribed in Spanish. I had ordered fifty of these for just such an occasion. The oldest of the two tried to communicate with me, saying she would keep it at her “casa”.

She asked if this was our “casa”

Bernard giving the grand tour

Homero’s family posing

Bernard always has a trick up his sleeve!

Scott giving away the ring

We packed up and asked if there was an internet café in town. Milton said he would lead us back to town and show us where it was. We said our goodbyes to the family, each of us getting a hearty hug, hand shake, and even a kiss on the cheeks from the little girls. After about 10 minutes of following him, he pulled over and said, “Here is the place, but they are on their afternoon siesta”. Now this is my kind of place. Close business and take a nap! Milton offered to take us to his home and allow us to access the internet. We parked on the street. Milton introduced us to his mother, and two sisters. All of them only speaking Spanish, made us feel right at home, with their big smiles and friendly talk. Milton told us to follow him into the living room where we were given the access code, and told to take our time. We spent nearly an hour and a half online updating Facebook, checking emails, connecting with family and enjoyed sitting on the couches of our new-found friends.

At Milton’s house in town

Any trepidation of entering a foreign country, and not knowing how people would respond to us, was out the window. We had met some of the most wonderful, warm, friendly people. They welcomed us in like family, even writing down their email addresses and phone numbers, with the offer to call them at anytime if we need help. “We will be your point of contact in Mexico for your family or friends”, said Milton. You just could not ask for a friendlier bunch of people.

After spending the morning with Homero and Milton, we decided we better return to the campsite for one more night. We could get a fresh start the next morning heading for Monterrey. Milton Called Homero to let him know so he could let us back in. We stopped at a local taco stand. Angela and I ordered Taco de Pollo (chicken tacos), while Bernard went a little more traditional with his Cuban sandwich. We stopped at the only grocery store in town (Mercado), and purchased some things to make for dinner later and snacks for the road. We were able to find pre packaged foods, acceptable to eat with our gringo stomachs.

Taco stand in Hidalgo

While we were still packed up we decided to experience a little off-road adventure. At the base of the mountain is a dried, rocky river bed that snakes through and around the mountains at the campground. We set out onto the trail enjoying the obstacles, and uneven terrain. Scrub brush, abandoned shacks, and cattle littered the back trails we encountered. We were gaining altitude fast as we climbed higher elevations. We saw beautiful views overlooking the mountainous area. We rounded bends, climbed large boulders, lost traction on loose gravel, all in the name of an off-road adventure. We finally made it to the top of the accessible mountain and turned to go back to the campsite. Along the way, we found a large pile of bones, the skeleton of what appeared to be a cow. It had been picked over clean by the buzzards and dried in the sun.

Headed up the trail

Bernard headed up the first leg of the mountain trail

We headed back to the campsite and noticed another campsite across from ours where loud Mexican music was playing. We stopped in and asked someone if there was internet access. “Si”, said the gentleman, whom we later learned was the owner of that campground. We ordered a Coke and sat outside with the computers. Bernard ran his extension cord to his laptop, and Angela was able to “Tango” with her parents (video chat). After we had been there a while, the owner came over to ask if we were hungry. Having just eaten not too long ago, we said we were not. He brought out a bag and set it on the table and said you have to try these. “They are Chicorrones from Monterrey”. Not wanting to be rude, but also leery of eating room temperature meat, we reluctantly tried one. They are like thick pieces of deep-fried pork, much like bacon. It tasted excellent. Bernard and I went back for another piece. Angela, still reluctant, passed. He then pointed at a tree across the parking lot and said, “That is an avocado tree”. We were intrigued to see the tree that produces such wonderful fruit! Angela and I love guacamole on almost anything.

Back at the campsite, we let ourselves in and began to set up for the night. It was nearing dark and we wanted to get to bed early so we could get a good start. Homero came to check in with us and welcome us back.  After setting up, we were sitting in our lounge chairs, when we began to hear some strange noises on the other side of the cars. Bernard grabbed a flashlight and walked cautiously around the front of my Landrover. “You’re not going to believe what it is”, he exclaimed! 5 wild cows had wandered into our campsite and were grazing inches from our trucks, and 8 feet from us! What a surprise. Cows in the night! We slept a little restless that night also, waiting to see if they would return, and the wind picked up strong again.

Cows in the camp-After we shooed them away.

Curious about our home on wheels

Bernard showing Milton the Augusta Chronicle article about us

Our campsite- Beautiful view of the mountains!

The next morning we were up and packed early, headed for Monterrey. What a wonderful two nights we had in Hidalgo, plus today, I turned 40! We did it. We made it on the road and were having the time of our lives on my 40 th birthday. Have you set any goals that you have or still plan to meet? Leave a comment, we love to hear them! Visit our Facebook page for more photos of our adventure CAO Expeditions

Mexico Border crossing. We made it!!

Posted: July 20, 2012 by Central America Overland Expeditions in Expedition/Travel

We left Laredo headed for the bridge to Mexico. We had heard that bridge 2 was the better one to choose, primarily due to construction. This info was found online by visiting Mexico Mike’s webpage. It was a little nerve-racking not knowing exactly what to expect. We had researched and read and felt like we had a good idea, but actually doing it now was almost stressful. However the overwhelming excitement trumped the stress and we just pressed forward. We got in line and easily maneuvered through the first gate. Wow! That wasn’t so bad. Then we pulled up to the first check, where we had to provide our passports, and the guard opened a door to peek in the vehicle. We were waved through easily. I looked in my rear view mirror just in time to see a guard open Bernard’s door and a sleeping bag fell out. They shared a laugh and she motioned him through.

No firearms allowed-only police and cartel will carry guns in Mexico!

The first border stop

 

We pulled up to a second guard motioning us to pull off to the left. He did not speak English at first, but when I questioned him about directions to the immigration office (or Adduna), he spoke quite well ‘and gave us the directions. We were in! We made our way through poorly marked streets, heeding the “Alto” signs (Stop). We were to go make a u turn across a 3 lane road. After one missed turn, we were headed in the right direction. It was difficult to take everything in, enjoy the moment of being in another country, and follow choppy directions. But it was exciting! Here we were world travelers, making our way through another country learning the signs, and traffic habits.

We finally found the building where we were to get our visas and car permits.

Bernard and Angela heading into get visas

We made our way in trying to read signs in Spanish to direct us. The people we passed seemed friendly, speaking only in Spanish. Immigracion’ was the first window. We were greeted in Spanish. Bernard said, “ Do you speak English”?  “Pequena” (little) , He said. He asked for our passports and then scanned a copy of each. He handed us a form to fill out and pointed to a table. As we began filling them out a gentleman came over offering assistance. He was helpful, and I assumed he was working for tips. After completing all of our forms, we offered him a tip, to which he held up his hand and said, “No”.

Back up to the window, we handed in the forms and we were granted 180 days visa to tour the country. We were told to go to the next stations, number 2 and number 4. As we passed station 2 we saw that it said “copias” or copies. Feeling smug, we passed that station. We had done our research and had three copies of everything, our passports, international drivers licenses, and  vehicle titles. We were prepared and on top of it. We waited in a long line for the car permits. There were about 5 windows open, but it seemed to take about 10 minutes or so for each permit. Patiently, we waited for our turn. Children canvassed the line trying to sell chicklets, flowers, and anything someone would pay for. They would come up to you with a sad look in their eyes holding their product speaking only in Spanish. It took multiple, “No, gracias” for them to move to the next person.

Finally my turn!

Bernard getting his car permit

 

Finally we were up! I walked to the window copies in hand and pulled out my folder. I asked the girl at the window if she spoke English. She smiled nervously and looked at one of her co workers who walked over to assist. He spoke pretty good English, but was very soft-spoken. We managed to get all of the items he requested, copies of all of my documents,  and another form to fill out. Then he asked for my copy of my visa. UUGGHH! Of all the things,  we did not stop and make a copy of the visa. We thought we had been fully prepared. The line was twice as long as it was when we started an hour and a half ago! Fortunately, he told me to go make a copy and return to his window and wait for him to finish with that person. Phew! That was close. I did not want to wait for that line again. I noticed Bernard was having to do the same thing. He finished up sooner than I did. He and Angela waited for me to get the copy.

Angela waiting for us to finish

 

After getting my copy, making it back to the window and receiving my car permit, we were headed out the door. We were official. We still had cell service so we were able to update Facebook and read emails. Angela had researched a campground in Hidalgo Mexico which offered turn by turn directions. She saved the page on her phone so we could follow them as we left the border. We knew phone communication would abruptly come to an end, so we gave Bernard one of the walkie talkies so we could talk.

Now on to the final stop. Approximately 16 miles from the border , headed toward Monterrey, was a permanent military checkpoint. This is a game of Russian roulette. You pull up to a gate, and wait for the light to either turn green or red. If it turns green you are free to pass. If it turns red, you must pull over to the side and they conduct a more thorough search. As it would go, we got the red light! We pulled over to have our vehicle inspected. As I pulled up, the guard began speaking in Spanish. “No, compri hendo”, I said. He smiled and began speaking in broken English. He did a little more inspecting. I spoke with him and told him we were headed to Monterrey for camping. About that time, Bernard also pulled up. My inspector said, “are you all together”? “Si”, I said. I looked over at Bernard as three inspectors converged on his vehicle. I noticed them speaking to him. All of a sudden, they all started laughing. I later learned that Bernard had whipped out the Augusta Chronicle article about our trip and showed them. They thought we were celebrities and laughed as they waved us all on.  Go Bernardo!

Bernard had border patrol laughing

We were now really travelling in Mexico! The exhilaration consumed me. The excitement, the preparation, the frustration, it all came to a head at that very moment. We had arrived.

We are trying to keep these post as current as possible, with limited internet and time to write them. However, you can follow us on Facebook as well. We have updated status’s and pictures, so check us out here:  Central America Overland Expeditions and don’t forget to sign up in the box to the left for future email notifications. Tell your friends! Next stop, Hidalgo Mexico!

San Antonio- Headed for Mexico!

Posted: July 19, 2012 by Central America Overland Expeditions in Expedition/Travel

We left Kendellville Texas headed toward San Antonio Texas around 2:30 pm after saying good-bye to the Urban Treasure Hunter and Camera girl. The trek was pretty uneventful. We saw some rural Texas landscape. As far as you could see, there was fields and scrub brush. Surprisingly, we did not see much in the way of cattle. Occasionally we would see the broad horns of a herd of Longhorns grazing peacefully in the sun. I was very impressed that the speed limit was 75 MPH! Too bad, I only saw that speed once, as we are taking it slow and enjoying the journey. The temperature was steadily holding near 100 degrees, and the humidity was up.

Scrub brush in Texas

Chaufer Scott

 

 

 

As we entered into San Antonio, the scenery changed dramatically. It was a mish mash of crisscrossed highways, clusters of traffic, and commercial businesses littering the highways. We later learned there are nearly 1.3 million people residing the San Antonio area!

 

We followed the GPS directly to the home that we had been invited to for the evening via www.couchsurfing.com We were greeted in the driveway by Russell, and invited to come into meet his wife Jan. They were an interesting couple. They have travelled a lot and were very knowledgeable about travelling in Mexico and South America.

As soon as we were settled in and shown our bedrooms, Bernard said that he needed to drop his vehicle off at the dealer to have a new radiator installed and a few other things. He had a friend in San Antonio that had lined him up with the local Toyota mechanic that did jobs at the shop on the side. Angela decided to stay and chat with our new-found friends and Bernard and I took off in both of our vehicles.

I entered the address we were given to the dealership into the GPS and followed along. After about 20 minutes of driving, Bernard called and said “I do not think it is this far”. We double checked the address and GPS, and determined that the address was correct, so off we went again. Long story short, after heading down 35 south for nearly 25 miles, we pulled into a truck stop. The GPS indicated we had arrived. There was no dealership in site.

After some phone calls, frustration, aggravation, and threatening to throw the GPS out of the window, we proceeded to the other side of San Antonio to where the dealership really was. By this time it was nearly 7:00 pm. We were supposed to be at the dealership at 6 pm. By the time we rolled into the dealership, the mechanic had given up on us and left. What a goose chase for nothing!

We made it back to our hosts’ home just in time to be offered smoked chicken breast made in the “Green Egg”. Boy was that good. I had always heard of the Green Egg, but never tried it. The meal was Russell’s specialty, and Jan made mashed potatoes and vegetables too. We settled back on the couch and talked about travelling and different customs, oddities and even a little politics. We learned that the couple’s three boys were getting their education abroad. They are currently in Shanghai, China! They shared their Facebook photos and such.

The next morning we were off. We were given the advice to adopt the thinking, “on or about”. So when they asked us when we would be crossing into Mexico, of course, we said “on or about Tuesday”.

Bernard has a couple of friends living in San Antonio, having been in the military for 20+ years. Ralph Plaza, was one of those such friends. Ralph’s wife, having just had surgery, decided it would be best to not have extra company. He planned for us to use two hotel rooms at Randolph Air Force base there in San Antonio. The accommodations were excellent, having a kitchenette, and free laundry facilities! We did a load of laundry and were set on that again for another week. Thanks Ralph!

 

We were able to briefly get down to the Alamo and the beautiful river walk in downtown San Antonio. It is well worth the visit, though the Alamo is much smaller than I envisioned. We hope to go back and experience all it has to offer on the way back.

River walk- San Antonio

Boat ride in downtown San Antonio

The Alamo!

Scott & Bernard causing a little trouble!- Alamo Ranger

 

 

 

 

 

 

We did a day of maintenance, finalizing some last-minute items on the vehicles. Arif Sealey, a friend of Bernard’s, was nice enough to allow us the use of his garage. We finished wiring Bernard’s lights, installed a new ARB tent cover, repaired the cb radio and topped off fluids. I installed my fender liners, topped off the antifreeze and oil and tightened the coolant hoses, where there was a small leak. Afterwards Bernard was finally able to drop his Landcruiser off at the shop for the radiator repair. He did not make it back to the hotel until nearly 1:30 am because the mechanic ran into rusty bolts and other issues. Bernard was warned “stop driving through water”!

Up early the next morning, at 6:00 am, we made last-minute stops and headed for Laredo Texas. We got to Laredo around 1:30 pm and decided to make a stop at Wal-Mart. This is when it began to hit me that we were very close to Mexico. All of the people seemed to be speaking Spanish, and the signs were predominately Spanish. That made me question, “Are we already in Mexico”? No, we are still in the USA. Border crossing on the next blog entry!

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There is treasure in them thar’ hills!

Posted: July 15, 2012 by Central America Overland Expeditions in Expedition/Travel
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We left out of Scott Louisiana (The Boudin Capital of the World), just after noon on highway 10 heading west toward our next destination of Houston Texas. As we travelled along, we were greeted with our daily monsoon of rain. Fortunately, it didn’t last long and we were able to make good time.

As we passed through Lake Charles Louisiana, a looming cantilever bridge appeared to extrude from out of the ground, shooting straight to the sky. It was remarkably reminiscent of a mammoth roller coaster ride you might see at Six Flags.  As we began to climb, I couldn’t help but think of three things. First, “clack, clack” as the roller coaster ride begins. Second, the old story of the train that could, “I think I can, I think, I can”. And last, the most unpleasant thoughts, “I hope this bridge is safe!” The side rails feature crossed pistols as decorative commemoration to pistol duels of years past. They brought in iron workers from around the country, to create the works of art, that many cross over never realizing  are there. There are over 10,572 such pistols helping support the structure. The overall height of the bridge is 135 ft. and just over 1.3 miles in length . It crosses over the Calcasieu river  between Lake Charles La. and Westlake La. It provided a beautiful birds eye view of the river and surrounding area. With no troubles encountered crossing over, we began looking around at the sites. My mother had spoken of a donut shop that some friends of their’s, Mark and Mary Montgomery, enjoyed each time they visited Lake Charles. I thought it would be easy to pick out the location, as, “how many donut shops can there be in this area”. We quickly learned that between Lake Charles and Houston Texas, there are dozens of donut shops along the way. Shipley donuts seemed to be the most prevalent. In every shopping center, corner location and free-standing buildings, seemed to offer their version of the best, hottest donuts! We did not stop at any of them though. Maybe on the way back through…

Lake Charles bridge

Iron Dueling pistols

 

Crossing into Texas, I was excited to see that things really are bigger in Texas! The local speed limit was posted at 75 MPH. Ordinarily this would have meant, you can go 80 without worrying about a ticket. However, still working on the new mind set of “slowing down” and enjoying the journey, we maintained a steady 65 MPH.
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About 20 miles outside of Houston, traffic became very congested. We navigated using the GPS to arrive at Bernard’s cousins, George & Verta’s home around 6:30 pm.

They are situated in a very nice area that was built up during the 1980’s oil boom. They have a nice home, and offered to let us stay  with them for the night. George fired up the grill and threw on some hot dogs and sausage dogs. We enjoyed eating and visiting with George and his father who was also there visiting. They were heading out in the morning for a fishing trip in Alaska. It was fun discussing their plans, with all of us having been to Alaska before. Verta was off for a girls night out, with her friends. Angela and I felt privileged that we were given the futon in a room with its own bathroom. I wonder if it is really a good idea to partake of such nice accommodations so close to heading down to a third world country in a roof top tent…..hey, why not?
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We got a great nights sleep. Up the next morning, we decided to run some errands in town before heading to my friend TJ, on the other side of Houston. Angela and I noticed a Whataburger on the way. This is a fast food restaurant that we have not had in Georgia since I was in high school. I have fond memories of leaving Hephzibah high school around lunch time and heading to the local Whataburger for a burger with grilled onions. Angela had heard me talk of this in the past, so seeing an opportunity to reminisce, she said “Go ahead, let’s get a burger”. We enjoyed a fresh grilled, onion burger, before moving on to our errands. Mmmm…almost as good as I remembered.

We left George’s house around 3:30 headed toward TJ’s house. The GPS said we should arrive in 38 minutes. We optimistically thought we would easily be there within that time frame. However, the GPS does not account for the Houston traffic! We slowly made or way. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a 4Wheel parts store. I have always seen the advertisements and parts list in my favorite off-road magazines. We made a quick detour and Bernard and I were like kids in the candy store! They have driving lights, winches, tires, wheels, and plenty of off-road goodies. Angela, called after us as we entered the store, “keep it within my budget”! She is tough. She has been keeping a running tally of all expenses along the way. I found numerous things that I “needed”, however settled on purchasing only a Jerry can for extra fuel.
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We soon arrived at TJ’s house, aka “The Urban Treasure Hunter”. He has a show on Youtube that you can check out here: Urban Treasure Hunter  We met Laura his wife aka “Camera girl”, who greeted us like old friends. Her and Angela immediately hit it off and went into the kitchen to work on decorating cupcakes for TJ’s birthday, that we learned, was that very day.
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He had quite a few friends stop by and wish him Happy Birthday. After catching up and swapping stories of each of our adventures throughout life, we realized it had been 28 years since we had actually saw each other. It’s a great friendship when you can just pick up right where you left off, that long ago! We talked of the early years when, as 12 and 13 year olds, we crawled on our bellies through tunnels under the old barn in our back yard of Arkansas. Little did we know that would be what gave him his start as the Urban Treasure Hunter. Later on, TJ pulled out the game of Monopoly, introducing me to my later chosen profession of real estate. Its interesting, that we could pinpoint our future interest down to that very day, long ago in November of 1984.

TJ, like his father is a phenomenal cook! He had prepared a sausage and chicken gumbo, along with shrimp etoufe’ over rice. TJ and Laura were masters of hosting, making each of us feel like a king. Then it was time for the cupcakes. Boy were they good! There was more calories packed in those little suckers than you should have in a day! They featured Swiss cake rolls stacked on top with “treasures” of other goodies like sprinkles, gold chocolate coins, etc. I thought that was pretty impressive that the girls whipped those up that quick. As it got later, we were offered accommodations for the night. TJ likes to keep the house cool. When I say cool, I really mean, freezing! It must have been 59 or 60 degrees in there. We slept great digging deeper into the covers and dreaming of Central America to keep warm.

The next morning, TJ was up early making cinnamon french toast. That was just the ticket to prepare us for the day of treasure hunting lying ahead. Angela rode with Laura, hauling the state of the art metal detectors. TJ rode with me, while Bernard followed behind. We drove to Kendleton Texas to an old settlement where Santa Anna passed through carrying his treasure. As we got closer, we were blessed yet again with a heavy down pour. We pulled up to the county museum on the property and ran in quickly to avoid getting soaked. The ladies met us at the door. “Oh we didn’t expect to have any visitors in this weather!” We were asked to sign in and then she recognized The Urban Treasure Hunter. He had some artifacts that he wanted to donate to the museum, and they always welcomed his contributions. This time was no different, as he brought several items that they documented and prepared for display.  After a grand tour and history lesson of the area, all said goodbye and we headed back to the vehicles to start the treasure hunt.

After finding the perfect spot to stop (near the river not too far from the 1800’s cemetery), we got our first lesson on how to use the state of the art equipment. We were told to “scan” the area listening for the sounder and then pinpoint the spot. It was only a matter of a minute or two and I had a hit! We marked the spot, began digging and pulled my treasure from the saturated ground. Lo and behold, it was identified as a square nail, used by settlers to build their homes. It was exhilarating to be able to find something so quickly. All of a sudden Bernard burst out in a solo harmonica melody commemorating the archeological find. We all laughed and continued on. Almost immediately, Bernard got a hit! Man this land was furtile with artifacts. This time it was some type of metal rod approximately 10″ long. About this time, we noticed people were starting to watch what we were doing. Bernard played another victory tune on the harmonica, which prompted a guy in a Chevy truck to approach us. He said, “My name is Daniel, what are y’all up to?” We introduced him to The Urban Treasure Hunter, camera girl, and the CAO expedition crew. He was intrigued by the making of the show that we were working on filming, and how Bernard learned to play the harmonica so well. He was fascinated to find out that Bernard learned to play from watching youtube. He was equally fascinated that he would be able to watch himself on The Urban Treasure Hunter show on youtube.
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While they were talking, I continued my search for treasure, scanning the ground waiting for the “beep”. It wasnt long, and then I heard it. We dug down, and quickly discovered that we had unearthed an old flint from a rifle. Wow! You talk about exciting. We didn’t have to move more than 50 yards radius to find these items and we hadn’t hardly even begun. The humidity was becoming unbearable. Sweat was running down our faces. Camera girl was a life saver with her pre-planning. She went back to the car and got everyone a bottled water and hand towel to wipe the sweat from our heads and faces. There was only time for one last duet between Bernard and Daniel on the harmonica’s. It was bittersweet, but it was time to head down the road to the next adventure. We planned on driving to San Antonio, where we had been invited to couch surf with a local couple. There seems to never be a dull moment on this trip and we havent even crossed the border yet!

CAO Expeditions meet Chef Bourque- A Cajun Good time!

Posted: July 13, 2012 by Central America Overland Expeditions in Expedition/Travel
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Suburban Camping!

Day two was pretty uneventful traveling, unlike the previous day. We left Mobile around noon, saying goodbye to our couch surfing host, after taking down our tents and drinking a cup of coffee.

Leaving the neighborhood, where we did a little “Suburban camping”, we noticed some interesting signs. Now these must be “special” Alabama only signs. I have been in many states, towns, countries, and tourist areas however, have never run across these before. They said “Speed Lumps”. Oatmeal lumps, sugar lumps, lumps of coal, but speed lumps?
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Hopping back on the highway, we were met with yet more torrential rain. We are getting pretty used to this by now and just rolled with it. The air temperature rapidly dropped from Scorching hot, to miserably humid. Fortunately we had the air condition running full blast. Unfortunately, Bernard’s air is not working in his vehicle. This will be a project later at one of the military base craft shops or maybe, Mexico.

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And we are off!

Posted: July 11, 2012 by Central America Overland Expeditions in Expedition/Travel
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It has been a trying past couple of weeks. You know from following our progress, all of the things we were trying to pack in with the trip preparations. The good news, we have completed everything that is going to get done. It seems, every turn there were three more things popping up that needed to be handled before going. At the last-minute, Bernard called me and said “I have some good news and some bad news”. Nothing much ever good starts with those words. So, he says, ” I got a discount on my tires, however, they will not be in until Monday,midday.” Yes, the Monday we were scheduled to leave on! One thing I have learned on scheduling a big trip, even life changing event, is flexibility. The flexibility to roll with the punches and even appreciate the delay offering more preparation time. So we took full advantage of the “extra day” as it turns out we needed it… My brother, Chad and his wife Ginny, printed our slogan and website on vinyl that we put on the vehicles.

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It is a reminder to slow down and enjoy life, not rush it along.
Last minute packing was going well. I even naively, imagined I had room to spare. Boy was I in for a surprise!

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Some how after staying up past 1 am, getting up at 6 am, a stop at the bank and the office, we were off! We met Bernard at the Pilot gas station in Augusta at 9 am. Only one hour after our intended departure.

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We took off rolling down I-20 toward Atlanta to a nice sunny day, around 80 degrees. In light of my new-found desire to take it slow and easy, we settled in at about 65 mph to test things out. About 30 miles down the road in Thomson, Ga., Angela and I decided we wanted breakfast and a coffee. So we pulled into McDonald’s where my Aunt Gloria works. I decided we would get out and tell her “good-bye”. Well contrary to her telling me that they work her from sun up, she was not there!
We continued on again, putting our backs to the wind. When all of a sudden, we noticed a Toyota Tundra pulling a mid 90’s Mercedes on a UHAUL tow dolly. The reason we noticed it first, because having owned a UHAUL dealership recently, we tend to notice these things. But more importantly, we noticed it because the car on the dolly was whipping like a tail on a wood Pekkah, or at least that was the first thing that I blurted out when seeing it. Angela laughed at my analogy, and then turned her concerns to the car that was being tossed side to side behind the truck. We quickly passed it hoping Bernard would make it by before it let loose. Disaster diverted….at least for us. Sorry, I didn’t get a picture, as I was busy driving defensively. I wouldn’t be surprised if that guy didn’t make the news tonight.
Traveling on I was determined to enjoy the journey, forget about time lines, and just relax. I noticed the blue skies, the fluffy white clouds. They were almost 3D in appearance.

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The trip was going great! We somehow found ourselves in the middle of a military convoy of Hummers on semi trucks. Of course we felt right at home driving our big rigs, even giving that knowing wave that only the military and big rigs share, like “yeah, it’s just us against the other four wheelers out here on the highway”.

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Somewhere around 290 miles, in Montgomery Alabama, we needed to stop for fuel. I was very apprehensive about checking my fuel mileage. First of all, Land Rovers are not known for good gas mileage. Secondly, I had added so many modifications, weight and wind resistance, that I felt like I would be lucky to get 10 miles to the gallon. And to top it off, it requires premium gas. Well, to my surprise, we actually managed to get 13.5 miles to the gallon. I know this sounds terrible, but I was even a little excited. I packed every square inch of the vehicle and performed all of the modifications, so I know what is in there. So to get 13.5 mpg, I was happy!

All of a sudden, the skies turned gray and the opposite traffic began showing up with their headlights on. Not a good sign. Then the bottom fell out. It began torrentially pouring rain. It was so heavy, the semi truck disappeared in front of me. It is an eery feeling not knowing if someone has panicked and stopped right in front of you, or not. I slowed to a safer speed and continued forward progress. Checking my rear view mirror, I noticed Bernard had also disappeared. I searched with little success, just to see the white lines on the road. Everything was a gray fog and sheets of rain.

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It was also with the first rain drops that I regretted not replacing my windshield wipers! It was more of a smear than a clear. Eventually it let up enough that I could see cars again. In checking my mirror again, I saw that Bernard was definitely not in my range of site. We pulled off to the side of the road and waited a few minutes. Fortunately, he came along and flashed his lights that all was ok. A few more miles ahead and we pulled into a rest area to compare stories and take a much-needed bathroom break.

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After getting back on the highway, I began to feel a little hungry. I knew I had packed some chocolate covered almonds within my reach. So one hand on the wheel, I reached for the spot the can of almonds was. I felt it and began to pick it up from behind the seat. As I raised it up, it became wedged between the seat and the storage box I had built for the back of the vehicle. I pulled and tugged and twisted, to no avail. I tried again. No luck. I wanted those almonds! I wouldn’t let go until I had them up front. All of a sudden it occurred to me that I was no smarter than the monkey, when given a handful of peanuts through a hole, will actually trap himself by making a fist to grip the peanuts. And he will not un ball his fist to set himself free, because he wants those peanuts. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself for not letting the almonds go….

We arrived in Mobile Alabama around 4:30 pm to overcast skys, but no rain. We were determined to get wiper blades from the Land Rover dealership, as it required a special kind.
We first went to our hosts home. Bernard had been in contact with a host from http://www.couchsurfing.com This is an online community of people willing to share their “couch” or other accommodations with like-minded travelers. Genevieve, offered to let us park our vehicles in her yard and pop up the tents. As we were turning into the driveway, another couch surfing host, named Robyn that Bernard had been in contact with called and said “Hey! Where are you guys at?” She decided to stop in to meet us and chat awhile. This is a testament to the remarkable online couch surfing community. They are all friendly and enjoy meeting new people. After meeting our host, Angela and I excused ourselves to try to make it to the dealership, for wiper blades, before they closed. We made it with 15 minutes to spare. Ken, came out to look at the blades. He said “well here’s your problem, there is no rubber left on the blade”. They installed them for free, reduced the price even lower than they quoted on the phone, and gave me a large roll of paper towels free, just because. Now that is customer service. I highly recommend if you are ever in the Mobile Alabama area, and need help with your vehicle stop in and see Ken in the parts department.

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I am lying here in our roof top tent typing all of this on my android phone. So please disregard any typos or incorrect grammar. I need to make use of the internet that was also graciously provided by our host here in Mobile. Wow! What a first day on the road!
Bernard’s in his tent, we are in ours, and our host went to pick someone up at the airport. She promised coffee in the am, and then we will be off to explore Mobile, before heading to Lafayette Louisiana. If every day of our trip consist of the roller coaster of today, we are in for a treat!

The value of my head keeps going up !

Posted: July 7, 2012 by Central America Overland Expeditions in Expedition/Travel

Or so I would like to believe! It’s amazing the amount of times I’ve heard this week that I am going to get my head chopped off . For example, here’s an actual conversation at the gas station: Stranger ” Hey, nice truck, you look like you should be driving through a  jungle or something! ”  Me:  Thanks, I am!” Stranger: Whatcha talkbout?” Me: Yeap, I’m driving to Belize!” Stranger: You gon get yer head chopped off! ” Me: I’m looking forward to it, can’t get nothing on the open market for my head here in Augusta, Georgia. See, I’m going bald, hearing is bad, teeth missing. I figured I could get more in the Jungle. Maybe some witch doctor will shrink it and sell it to a museum.” Stranger: —–blank stair—-  Ya got me! “But tell me how do you ship your truck and when do you fly?’ Me: “I’m driving to Belize.” Stranger: —–blank stair—- “Ya got me again!” Me: ” I’m driving through Mexico and then Belize is kinda like if you live in southern Mexico you can see Belize from your backyard.” Stranger: “Oh! You gon get yer head chopped off!” Me:  “You think I’ll make CNN?” Well this conversation has played out many times this week and I’ve become quite tolerant of the comments made by those that don’t know and in a secret way enjoying giving a geographic, educational and enlightening lesson about the virtues of Central America.

The entire region of Central America is a biodiversity hotspot, which extends from northern Guatemala through central Panama. It’s bordered by Mexico to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the east, the North Pacific Ocean to the west, and Colombia to the south-east. The Pan-American Highway runs through Central America, and that is what we are taking. Like the article that appeared in the Augusta Chronicle  “A long road ahead”. According to the Happy Planet Index – an attempt to measure human well-being and environmental impact using a perplexing mathematical formula – most Central Americans couldn’t be more pleased about their situation, and I want to find out what all the happiness is all about! We would like to thank everyone for their well wishes, support and enthusiasm, as we count down to our departure. Stay tuned. B

Fluid changes, modifications and double checking , “Oh my!”