Wednesday, December 29, 2010

san luis potosí to xilitla

Grateful to be done with the cobblestone road, we drove past forty army vehicles parked on the side of the highway north. Young men in fatigues in and atop jeeps and tanks holding machine guns and the like were waiting, maybe off to take on the narcotraficantes. Mexico's compulsory military service has undoubtedly taken on new meaning for these boys and their families since the new drug cartel came to town. It no longer means stopping tourists to have a curious and harmless poke around their van. Now it's life and death. We stopped for lunch at a dusty little pollo asado stand by the road. The sign was painted on four sugar bags sewn together, the walls of the stand a stack of palettes cleverly strapped together on their sides.The mother cooked up the chicken and her daughters brought us tortillas and salsa. Hunched-over granny paced back and forth behind a fence while small dogs and chickens circled around us, vying for anything we might drop. Back on the highway, something new — a few square yards of sun-faded fabric tied to some tall branches planted in the dry soil and, in its shade, little family clusters, mostly women and young kids, waving us toward them with hands or rags or baseball caps. A tactic not likely to garner a lot of success when your clients are driving by at 100 kilometres an hour. We couldn't figure out if they were selling something or just out and out begging — something we have rarely seen outside the biggest cities in Mexico. A little further down the road, more people waved us over but this time they sat near branches tied together in a big square. Stretched vertically in the square were translucent snake skins drying in the sun and above each skin hung a little bottle hanging on a string displaying liquids of different colours. I'll have to look into that one.

On to San Luis Potosí, a good-sized city that unlike many in the centre of Mexico, doesn't get a lot of press. We couldn't figure out why. We opted to spend the night in a hotel rather than in the camping that was way out of town. The colonial centre of the town is intact and gorgeous. No litter to distract you from the beauty of the town. Much of downtown (the centro) is closed to traffic and there is square after square after church after cathedral. We didn't see any other gringos but we didn't get the unabashed stares that we came to expect in this part of the country last year. City folk are just too cool to stare. The morning was freezing. We had breakfast at a little breakfast diner — our first fresh-squeezed orange juice of the trip. MMMMM. Our meals all came one after the other, with almost enough time to finish one before the other came. This with no comment from the waitress. Par for the course, I suppose. We started on stools at the bar but finished in a booth because we were all so cold. We could see our breath while we ate. The central market was a treat, just a couple of city blocks worth but full of real things, not tourist tchatchkas. Among other things, we picked up some bolillos (very much like Portuguese rolls), perfect avocado, tomatoes (which are exclusively the roma variety), our first jícama (a crazy root veg that is like a cross between a potato and pear), a shopping bag and some arrachera (flank steak cut across the grain and delicious). After the market, we went to the fascinating Museo de la Máscara, an amazing museum of masks in an ornate building on the edge of a square. Full of masks from all eras of Mexican history — primitive, elaborate, scary, funny — masks aren't just for wrestlers in Mexico. There are elaborate dances from every state in the country and many involve masked characters enacting ages-old battles, good vs. evil, spanish vs. indigenous peoples, christians vs. heathens. A fascinating walk through the eras and folk-art tendencies of Mexico.

Back to check out and then into the van toward Lago Media Luna (Half moon lake). The drive was spectacular, out of the desert, briefly through a jungle, then through the Valle de los Fantasmas, a valley of stunning rock outcroppings, through more mountains and then into orange land — acre after acre for kilometres of orange groves. We headed south off the road just before Rioverde, toward the lake. Along the right hand side of the road ran a crystal-clear pale green canal full of lily pads and water birds. A couple of times we saw Mexican kids floating in the canal, all hanging on to yellow ropes stretched the twenty or so feet from one side to the other. At the end of the road a turn-off into the Parque Estatal Manantial (State Spring Park) and found a couple of hundred cars parked under small trees in a sloping field and beyond it a small ticket booth and a gate. We asked if we could camp here in our van. "Sure, in the parking lot,' was the answer, 'you just need to pay the entrance fee for the park." which was 90 pesos (about $8). We found a flat place to park (very important when you're sleeping beside someone who weighs a hundred pounds more than you!), donned our bathing suits and headed into the park. Through the gates we were met with a series of canals at most thirty feet across weaving their way through low pines. The clear, blue water is fed by hot springs and there is an impressive current as the lake water moves through the canals (explains the yellow ropes). We felt very, very white among the dozens of Mexican families, some in bathing suits, some in t-shirts, most wearing lifejackets playing with their kids in the 80 degree water. We jumped in the canal near the lake and floated with the current back to where most of the families played in the shallows. We couldn't figure out if we were being stared at because we were the only gringos or because we allowed our small children in the deep water with no flotation. I suspect that most Mexicans cannot swim (no access to water, no luxury of free time to teach or learn).

The kids all started the next day flying into the water off the rope swing, from the 5 degree air into the 25 degree water. Then we hopped into the car and headed toward Xilitla & Las Pozas, Edward James's surrealist fantasy world in the jungle.

Monday, December 27, 2010

el potrero chico to real de catorce

The nochebuena supper was ... interesting. We, along with forty or so climbers, crowded into a little dining room where we were offered turkey & stuffing or pork in sweet sauce or veggie patties. The turkey was a lot like white ham (gross) and the stuffing was basically sausage meat with raisins, the pork was equally strange. The Rioja, on the other hand, was delicious. Our first full night in the van was a treat although Henri froze in the new hammock, with no insulation underneath him. He came to warm up in bed with us in the morning and then we remembered it was Christmas. The kids ate sweet cereal to their heart's content and Wil packed a lunch for our hike. We left the compound, hung a left up the road and entered the famous El Potrero Chico. The road, which got washed out this year, slices its way through two massive limestone faces — the cliff walls peppered with cactus and the occasional joshua tree. We chose to walk in the river bed rather than on the road and followed it upstream (although it was completely dry) for an hour or so. Henri pointed to a pile of rocks that ran up the mountainside and asked if we could give it a try. We scrambled up the hill, helping each other find purchase in the rocks, getting assaulted by aloe and agave and assorted prickly trees. It was a blast. We had our lunch and then helped each other slide down. When we walked back through the canyon, little specks of colour began appearing on the cliff face — helmets of teeny, tiny climbers clinging to the wall, some of them several hundred feet in the air. Once you spotted one, casting your eyes fifty or so feet up or down would usually reveal their partner who was either catching up or holding the rope and waiting for the other to take the lead. The highest pair seemed impossibly high and, as we watched, one let go of the rock and swung in a big arc to join his partner a dozen or so feet away. The level of trust the sport demands is something else.

We got to see a praying mantis close up for the first time as it sunned itself on the side of the road. The young woman who pointed it out placed it gently in Henri's hands and we watched it slowly make its way up to his shoulder.

Back at the camp we tried connecting the colours on the cliff with the climbers' jackets now that they were earthbound. As nice and granola as this crowd is, it is not ours. They speak a language we do not understand (5-9s vs. 5-12s, simulclimbing, etc.) and that's all they really want to talk about. Many of them were in Potrero Chico for a month or more, only leaving the compound to turn left to climb and never right, to the rest of Mexico.

We had movie night in the van, the five of us in a heap on our bed. We took off in the morning for Real de Catorce, a former silver mining powerhouse that then became a virtual ghost town before it was brought back to life by some artists in the last fifty years. The road that leads to town is almost enough to dissuade you from going. Twenty-four kilometres of cobblestone road curves around the arid countryside and ends at the Ogarrio tunnel, the only way in and out of town. We'd read conflicting reports about the clearance. The difference would determine whether we fit or not. A couple of gas station attendants in surrounding towns seemed fairly confident that we'd fit. We pulled into the long line of cars waiting to go through the tunnel (it's only one lane wide) and the guy who sold us our ticket said we'd fit no problem. After him, we said no to a dozen or so vendors selling everything from pumpkin seeds to tuna (the very sweet fruit of the prickly cactus.) After the last of the oncoming traffic emerged, we followed the line of cars through the dusty tunnel. There were a couple of spots that looked a little low to me but we made it. All but two of the cars in front of us pulled into a large parking lot on the other side of the tunnel, we kept going until we came to a crashing stop as the van came into contact with the road. Luckily the bike rack frame took the brunt. We went all the way to the other side of town (about ten blocks on), then toward the cemetery where we'd read they tolerated campers. The doors into the cemetery were being locked as we got there. We tried across the street at a little hotel where Don Eduardo who was followed by a pack of dogs said we could spend the night. We parked and headed back into town on foot. The whole of Real de Catorce is cobblestone, much of it is on a pitch. We walked past the hundreds of stalls selling tacky coffee cups, tacky bracelets, elotes (corn on the cob which isn't as sweet as ours, usually smeared with mayonnaise, chile powder and grated cheese). We tried to share one but Frances couldn't manage it with her loose front teeth. We hung out at the tiny zocalo where families of Huichol indians were selling their paintings and weaving. The non-Huichol were a weird mix of what Wil calls dirty hippies, lots of layers and bad hair, incense and diablos and some crazy Swiss folk dressed in tight eighties ski suits. The town is certainly picturesque but it was all a bit weird.

The next morning we awoke to cockadoodledooing, some donkey braying, lots of dogs barking and a little pig squealing. It was heaven. We ate some breakfast and headed back through town on probably the hairiest road we've ever been on in Mexico. When we got through the tunnel we pulled over to ask some advice about this hike we'd read about, to the Pueblo phantasma (ghost town) over the mountain. One guy tried explaining the way to me but I didn't catch half of what he said. We decided to try anyway but when we passed by him again he was standing with a young guy who offered himself up as a guide. He told us he'd do it for "whatever we wanted to pay him." So off we went, up, up, up. A couple of minutes after we left a younger boy came running after us. "Your brother?, I asked. "My son", he replied! "He's ten." Up we went, over more cobblestone — incredible that this path was "paved". The hours and hours of back-breaking work laying stone after stone. We looped around the mountainside and looked around at the incredible scenery. "There's your van", he said and pointed to the little blue rectangle in the parking lot. We must have climbed a thousand feet in twenty minutes. We kept climbing, sometimes on the path, sometimes on pale tracks cut into the side of the mountain. We were all gasping for breath, the altitude keeping our poor lungs from getting the oxygen they needed. After about an hour we crested the last hill and were met with a gorgeous view of the stone foundations of long-abandoned houses and church nestled in a little valley. We ambled into the village, happy for a little downhill. There wasn't much to the town but the kids crawled through tunnels and climbed up a stone structure in the skeleton of the church while Wil and I sat around talking about how difficult it would have been to scratch a living out in this most inhospitable terrain. The desert is brutal. You have to look an awfully long time to find a place to sit down. The land is so hard— sand and gravel and pink rock, cactus of all shapes and sizes, joshua trees, agave, A spade wouldn't get you very far digging in this country.The sandy soil that isn't loose is like pumice. Riverbeds looks a foot deep in gravel. Even the birds are unfriendly, hawks and vultures coasting in the cool desert air. The only gentle thing about the landscape is the soft folds in the hills. As we were leaving, Frances approached a grate about ten feet across set in the ground and José-Luis jumped to his feet to warn her off. "It's the well." We all took turns throwing pebbles through the mesh but with no satisfaction; we never heard the pebbles hit bottom. Jose-Luis walked off and came back with a small boulder and launched it through the grate. First nothing, then a whoosh, then some cracking sounds as it bounced off the walls and more than ten seconds later, a dull thud.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

laredo to el potrero chico

The kids played in the hotel pool as wil & I watched, complimentary cocktails in hand, all of us enjoying American luxuries for one last night. We walked through the parking lot of the sprawling Mall del Norte to find our spot for dinner, Logan's roadhouse, a restaurant the kids fell in love with in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on the way to Mexico last year. The mall was throbbing with people. I assume most were American although we were the only whities and there wasn't much English, if any, being spoken. We kept asking people which bridge to take (there are four that cross over in or near Laredo) and number 1 seemed to get the most votes. Back at the hotel room the kids watched a cooking show while Wil and I worried in the other room. Then Wil started checking travelocity for flights to cities in Mexico from Texas. So very depressing. Fear is such an uncomfortable emotion, it twists your insides and is like jealousy in that it seems to come hand in hand with that other feel-good emotion, shame. Finally got to sleep. We tanked up for the last time in the States drove through Laredo across the absolutely empty Bridge No. 1.

We crossed over with zero fanfare and pulled over to get inspected by a very nice young woman. We were in the wrong place. She redirected us to the Migración office where we pulled into the parking lot with a hundred or more vehicles, most of which were piled high with goods, everything from tables to mattresses, jolly jumpers and carrier bags, all strapped down under flapping tarps. The building was a flashback to last year. One is expected to know where to stand, what forms to fill out, where to go first and second and third. The first counter is where you pick up the tourist applications, then you find a little spot around the island to fill out the form (you need to bring your own pen). A beautiful scene as the young men and women stand over the form, patiently reading it aloud for their mother or father or grandparent, some of whom I assume could not read. After the form, you go back to get it stamped, then to the photocopy section where they give you copies of everything you need, then to the Banjercito to pay for everything and to get the hologram sticker for the car windshield. Just standing around in line with all these Mexican families made me feel better -- standing in line after line with a bunch of normal people going about their normal business totally assuaged my fears.

The Migración bathrooms were another flashback. No toilet seats, no toilet paper. I forgot to come into the stall prepared. The roll of toilet paper was probably no more than three feet away, at the entrance to the bathroom. And so begins the retraining of getting over the lifelong habit of dropping the paper into the bowl.

Unlike last year, no one inspected the car, no one came out to ensure that the VIN number was actually the number on the car. We asked a couple of older gents sitting on the back of a pickup for directions to the highway. When I asked if the highway was safe one of them kissed his fingertips to indicate what great shape the road was in. The drive was completely anti-climactic. The landscape started out as scrub, low prickly bushes filling the flatter-than-flat land, then the Joshua trees and agave flowers started poking their heads above the scrub. Not long after, hazy silhouettes of distant sierras starting appearing on the horizon. We were taking turns in the lead with a mid-eighties boat of a car, a blue cadillac with a threesome of middle-aged folk. They waved every time they passed and we waved when we passed. When we finally got into Monterrey, they pulled up beside us at a traffic light. The driver signalled to me to open the window and while we waited for the light we chatted, he asked me where we were from, where we were going, the usual. How to explain to him the comfort his car brought me on this road we'd been led to believe was going to be a life and death adventure. "Que Dios bendiga" (God bless you) he said as we pulled away.

As we approached our first destination, Posada El Potrero Chico near Hidalgo, outside Monterrey, the mountains suddenly jutted out of the haze. The kind of mountains that look like huge sheets of rock on their side, massive limestone faces, which explains the impressive population of climbers in this tiny little posada. We signed ourselves up for the Nochebuena supper. The piñata is being filled. The kids are pumped. All is well.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

la frontera

We kicked around town for a while and then I surprised the kids and Wil with the Alamo Drafthouse, a movie theatre with a twist. Each row of seats faces a long low table and is separated by an aisle. On the table is a menu with a decent beer and wine list and a menu of quite yummy food. You write your order down on a little sheet of paper and the waiter comes by to pick up and deliver in silence as you kick back and enjoy Tron in 3d. The riesling went a long way in counteracting my deep-seated anxiety about talking during a movie (even if it was to a waiter in the theatre's employ). Speaking to the staff, however, is the only acceptable communication in the house — any other kind of chatter is met with immediate expulsion by the staff (my dad would love it but the Jenny & Fiona wouldn't last a minute!)

Wil decided to head back to the garage this morning to get a new water pump installed. Having it on hand along with a garage we trust is a combo Wil couldn't resist. He decided to head back to Austin Veedub first thing.

We've decided to head straight south and cross over at Laredo based on the advice of one of the Mexican mechanics at Austin VeeDub. The owner of the shop, an older gent who spoke so quietly and slowly that you really had to strain to hear him, told us about the house he used to own in Ciudad Miguel Alemán and his love for Mexico. "I don't go anymore," he said simply. The last time he crossed over, some bandits were in the midst of carjacking him when the police arrived. When he pulled up outside his house he found it had been totalled. The whole town was taken over. The drug runners showed up at night clubs carrying bags of decapitated heads. Nice. Later on one of the mechanics told us that Edward, the owner, had spent every weekend for many years in Mexico but that the recent violence kept him away. His quiet but firm reluctance to go, despite his deep fondness for the country, was so much more persuasive than the fear-mongering we've endured since the first speech from the border guard in Richford, VT.

The water pump replacement took a turn for the worse. There is just no rushing business two days before Christmas. The weather certainly doesn't feel like Christmas. Yesterday, it was eighty, today was in the seventies. Edward loaned us a Jetta for another night in Austin while we waited for the van. Austin is a great town but not an easy one to navigate without a car. The neighbourhoods are interesting but many miles apart. After a fun morning at the great kids' museum, we killed some time at the garage walking through the nine acres of VW skeletons out back, looking for a piece from the steering column that we needed. It was a bit creepy, seeing row upon row of beetle, jetta and, at the very back, van after van (old and new) propped up on rims and stripped down. I couldn't help thinking that there was a story associated with every one; the travelling stories of people like us come to a sad end.

Another great night in Austin. This town is seriously cool. There is excellent food on offer everywhere, much of it organic & local. Ceci dit, it is absolutely deadsville at this time of year, the state politicians are no longer in session, the university of Texas is out and the newer locals (Austin is growing at an astounding rate) have headed home to be with family for the holidays. The only place we encountered any kind of crowd was at the Whole Foods Flagship store where we stocked up on some of the things we'd prefer not to do without in Mexico, namely good chocolate and wine.

We said our goodbyes to the team at Austin VeeDub, packed up the van and hit the road for Laredo. Wil and I are both battling some serious jitters. 'Butterflies' doesn't even begin to cover it. Despite our dogged resistance, the horror stories have taken their toll. Thankfully the trepidation abates a little every time we are passed by a pickup or Suburban packed with a Mexican family — every inch of the roof or pickup bed piled high with belongings & bikes & barbecues. We even saw a couple of vehicles being used as trailers — one chockablock pickup, the driver's head barely visible through all the bags, towing another pickup full to bursting with stuff. We'll spend the night in Laredo and then hit the border at 8 for opening hours.

Our dinner out was interesting. I heard the next table over speaking Spanish so I went over to ask their opinion about which bridge to take. Their eyes rolled up in their heads and they recommended that if we felt we had to go that we find people to convoy with. One of the gentlemen handed me his card and said to call him for anything (except to come pick us up he made quite clear!) As they were leaving, he came over to our table, put his hand on Wil's shoulder and asked if we minded if he prayed for us. No, we said, not expecting him to do it right there. "Father God, please keep these people safe. Father God, etc.. for literally several minutes. The kids looked on, completely mystified. I don't think they'd ever seen anyone pray before we got to Texas. Needless to say, it has done very little to settle our nerves. We'll see if sleep comes tonight.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Austin, star of the Lone Star State

We drove, drove, drove, bungee cord in place -- through Missouri and into Oklahoma, making it to the other side of Tulsa for a late dinner. The stress level in the car was palpable. Wil was straining to hear every little noise the car made, sure that the death rattle was coming and he watched the temperature gauge like a hawk. The kids were, again, oblivious and kept themselves busy in the back.

We pulled into the lovely Motel 8 in Sapulpa, Oklahoma just past Tulsa and sauntered next door to Freddie's barbecue for supper. Our waitress insisted that we all try the house speciality. She kept repeating the name telling us that "y'all 'll luv it". However familiar the name, it never dawned on me that it could be what I thought it was. Sure enough these little bowls of "tabouly" soon appeared on the table, along with the "picka plattah" -- crudités and hummus. We thought the owners must be of middle-eastern descent but as the articles and photos on the wall showed, the Texan restaurateurs were as American as apple pie and had even won awards for "Outstanding Beef Menuing." (?)

Back at the motel, Wil checked to see if he'd gotten replies from any of the mechanics he e-mailed earlier in the day. No luck but being Sunday, we weren't really expecting much.

Monday morning he got on the blower to a guy in Austin (the closest VW shop) and got the answers he was looking for. Darryl told him not to take a chance in Mexico, that the former fifth gear was now dangerous little bits of metal floating around in the transmission. If luck were on our side the bits would stay put near the magnet meant to keep them away from the other gears. It looked like we were on our way to Austin to get the straight dope.

Another 500 mile day. 8 hours of driving with a quick stop over the Texas border for lunch at Harley Dan's Grill, a cinderblock bunker of a building just off the I-35. As we jumped out of the van, the curtains of the diner parted as the regulars unabashedly checked us out. As Wil stepped through the door, a couple of fiftyish bleach blondes, skin puckered by too many cigarettes and more sun, greeted Wil with a friendly "I wish I had ME a van like that. Then I could go somewheres." The place was tiny, one end devoted to a very small stage set a couple of feet off the ground, complete with drum kit, a few mics and a television for karaoke night. A harley-orange stripe ran around the whole place, 45s thumbtacked to the walls, little shelves lined the walls, one with a little statue of an eagle with wings that flapped and glittered in rainbow colours. There were maybe six tables, one was occupied by a very large bearded man wearing a t-shirt that read "Big people are harder to kidnap", one by a young couple with their two young daughters who ran around playing hide and seek, the other by the two blondes. Everyone was smoking. The waitress took our order, calling in to Dan to make sure he had buns for Frances's hotdog and then again to make sure he had a hotdog for the bun. "Your kids sure are polite", she said. "My girls is 25 and 19 and I guess I didn't do such a good job 'cuz I'm still raising 'em up. They didn't get their attitude from me tho'-- 'cuz I still got mine." It was one of the tastiest burgers I have ever had in my life. A toothless Harley Dan emerged from the kitchen after our meal and we thanked him for the great lunch. "Couldn't pay me enough to travel in a van like that with three kids,' he said. 'I'd have to stop every hour on the hour."

Kept driving, through Fort Worth and infamous Waco. Wil relaxed enough to let me drive for a while, making me promise to keep a close eye on the temperature. The wind blows hard in Texas, with little to get in its way. More than once I found myself trying to pull past an eighteen-wheeler, coasting in the lee, only to find that I couldn't maintain any speed once I got my nose past.Then the humiliating slowdown to pull back in behind the truck with a long line of irate Texans in their pickups on my tail.

We pulled into the Austin Motel at supper time and got the last room. There's something about the place that reminds me of the Phoenix in San Fran. We went for a wander down South Congress to find funky resto after funky resto and cool little shops of every description. Frances swayed the supper vote and got us seated at a picnic table in a street-side terrasse of an oyster bar. Lovely bottle of Albarino, variety pack of fresh oysters from California, Washington and BC, Texas snapper, calamari, green beans and the best brussel sprouts on the planet. It was so refreshing to be surrounded by normal people eating real food.

Got to the garage at 7:45, fifteen minutes before opening hours and therefore got the undivided attention of Darryl, Mike and a few other mechanics who discussed the ins and outs of the engine. When Mike drained the transmission fluid he found a treasure trove of metal bits, the pathetic remains of our fifth gear. We left the van in their able hands while we went off to see some of Austin.

We had a great breakfast but found it disconcerting to be surrounded by people holding hands and bowing their heads to say prayers aloud before tucking in. And we're not talking about "for what we are about to receive...", we're talking several minutes of deeply felt personal thanks to the Lord and his son, Jesus Christ our Saviour. One praying couple sat beside us and when they heard us ask the waiter to order us a cab they told us to cancel it because they wanted to drive us where we were going. Les and Mary from outside Springfield, Missouri piled us all into the back seat of their Hyundai and drove us all the way across town. Good christians indeed.

We spent an hour walking around the Bob Bullock Story of Texas Museum, a sometimes interesting and highly-glossed-over look at the life of the early settlers. We were then treated to a hysterical twenty-five minute film of the Story of Texas, a cross between the old natural history dioramas and a light show with misting and lightning and chair-thumping. The on-film narrator, "Sam Houstoun", concluded the film with a stirring invitation to embody the maverick Spirit of Texas telling us that not having been born in Texas "dudn't" matter.

Back to the garage for the verdict. Darryl and Mike said the van was okay. Just like that. They'd driven it around and said it didn't sound like the transmission was going to fail any time soon. They said if we could keep it from popping out of fifth we should be good to go but that we'd have to look into a rebuild when we got home.

Looks like we're going to Mexico after all!! Yeehaw!

Sunday, December 19, 2010


We were so proud of our progress -- making it into Indiana by mid-day. The kids happily busy with their early Christmas presents in the back. Then the gear shift pops out of fifth. A few minutes later, it happens again. Wil's face goes ashen while unmechanical me looks on, completely clueless. After tying the shifter down with a bungee cord he patiently explains to me the repercussions of a failing transmission. We pull into a little garage and Wil asks about diesel VW mechanics as I sit tight in the car still not fully comprehending what it all means. He comes back out and suggests I use the garage's internet connection to try to find a diesel mechanic in St. Louis, the next big town on the map. The mechanic and his two teenage boys are scheduled to leave the garage but allow Wil to jack up the van so he can crawl underneath to check the transmission fluid. The mechanic doesn't have the right sized allen key but very kindly gets out his welder to weld the right sized hex bolt to a scrap of metal. Wil couldn't get it open. The mechanic didn't want to charge us for his time. Midwesterners are definitely a courteous lot. Off we go to an auto parts store in Effingham, Illinois and ask about any VW guys in the area. He provides us with the number of a guy in Sumner, the midwest's VW guru. It is all feeling a bit too familiar, this search for diesel mechanics bringing back some very vivid memories of similar hunts in Mexico last year. We pull into a parking lot and Wil calls up the guy in Sumner while the kids and I go and buy some lunch fixings.

When we get back to the van Wil is beyond grey. He and I step out of the car and he explains that the guy on the phone said that our very custom engine and similarly custom transmission means that the problem is essentially unfixable. There is a chance that the bungee cord will work for a time and there is a chance that it won't. The idea of the transmission suddenly failing and being stuck on the side of the road as night is falling on some country road in Mexico basically means that before it started our Mexican road trip is over. Our all-night drive has left me feeling completely unable to swallow the bad news. Or maybe I'm just being brave for my distraught husband, who has spent every shred of spare time since we got home from Mexico last year fixing the van's every last hiccup. The only sliver of hope the guy offered is an unnamed garage in California that specializes in transmissions for customized VW vans and their engines.

Some of the options we came up with:
- dump the van, find a house for rent in Argentina
- drive back the way we came, park the van closer to home and fly to Mexico for a backpack adventure.
- head west, try to find the transmission guys and hope to get it fixed.

We decide instead to get a hotel room and enjoy a night out in St Louis -- stop worrying for a little while and figure out our next move after a good nights' sleep. At Wil's encouragement, we all kick the van before going into the hotel.
Is it meaningful that this is happening as we cross over the mighty Mississippi?

We head out for dinner to Lombardo's for ridiculously massive portions of artery-clogging pasta as St Louis fans don their jerseys and head out to the game.
We crash. By the time I get up at 8, Wil's been in the lobby for two hours and is now armed with a list of west coast custom transmission specialists. We decide to take our chances, kill a couple of weeks taking in some of the beauty the southwest has to offer as we chase down a new transmission and see if our Mexican road trip is at all salvageable. As we step out the door of the hotel, we are met with a beautiful view of the impressive Gateway Arch -- the symbolic gateway to the west.

Some of the things we chose to pass on today:
Vacuum Cleaner Museum
Jesse James's Hideout
World's largest rocking chair
32oz Coca-Cola - $1
and, for you ma,
Buffalo Run Casino: Where winning comes natural

Saturday, December 18, 2010

where will you spend eternity? Jesus Christ has the answer

A seriously heartwarming send off from friends at the school following the kids' christmas concert.

After the sun went down, we drove through a hundred wind turbines scattered in the fields around Chateauguay NY. Kind of creepy having these silent (for us), looming giants, arms akimbo emerge from the dark above the frozen trees. I suspect that the electric utility is promoting the sale of Christmas lights in upstate NY, where house-decorating has gotten downright competitive. The latest trend appears to be mini projectors perched on front lawns which cast festive (dare I say tacky) images on the side of the house. One home had a spotlight creatively pointed at two small reindeer on the lawn, casting massive deer-shaped shadows on the house (and also lighting up the unsuspecting family settled into the sofa in front of the tv). My favourite display was a larger than life-size crèche. The centerpiece was, of course, baby Jesus bundled in his massive cradle. On his right kneeled lovely Mary, to his left proud Joseph -- with Santa right over his shoulder straining to get a look before the magi showed up.

Stopped at a diner for dinner and watched an elderly black man parked at the counter cut his baked fish special into a million tiny pieces before performing the top-lip-swallowing chew only a truly toothless person can achieve. The clam chowder cup was thicker than pudding and mounded in the cup like ice cream-- we all balked and there stood the spoon, bolt upright in the middle, until our dinner was over. We put down the beds in the van and everyone got settled in. Along the shore of Lake Ontario, heading south at windy Buffalo. Driving around the great lakes in a hightop van is about as much fun as carrying a sheet of plywood alone across a windy yard. Passing big rigs becomes a very hands-on, often harrowing, lesson in aerodynamics. You have to plot the turns of the wheel as you engage the wind, take a few deep breaths in the brief calm, brace for the wake and then settle into being buffeted about. Bobbing along in the wake, an image that kept coming to mind was pedalling a tricycle at top speed after dad has driven over the front wheel.

Wil and I switched places at fill-ups and made it over the Indiana border for breakfast. Our determination NOT to eat at the chains paid off after skipping ten minutes of strip malls to find downtown Richmond and a little bagel shop suggested by Charles, a friendly stranger on the road. Indianans (is that what they're called?) are nice. We are leaking oil. Wil is not amused.

today's favourite signs:

Monday, December 06, 2010

getting ready to go

The map of Mexico is back up on the kitchen wall which can only mean one thing. The countdown is on. Eleven days 'til we leave. The kids lobbied to put off our midday departure until after their Christmas concert so we should be hitting the road around 2:30 on Friday the 17th. The van is all packed — bedding, guidebooks, pharma & toiletries, the new & non-leaking porta-potty, rain gear, snorkel stuff, flip flops and everyone's clothes (except for mine which will inevitably be too numerous for the space allotted them). Will put together the van kitchen in the Thule — folding table & chairs, double burner and mini propane tank, wash basin, plates, bowls, cups, cutlery, tablecloth, cooking knives & some spices. The rest will be bought in Mexico. The awning is back on. With any luck, this year it will be put to use more for the sun than for the record rainfall that plagued us & Mexico last winter. The screens have all been cut down to size and fitted with rare earth magnets so they stick to the van. With the help of our friendly welder, Louis, we rigged a hammock that hangs over the front seats to replace the piece of plywood from last year. The hammock means we can use the seats and wheel wells to store stuff when we're not on the road. It's all about space management. I've got meetings scheduled with the teachers to iron out what I need to cover and what books really need to come with us. We're just about ready. Barring the unforeseen (like last year's exploding pipes the morning of), we are almost good to go.

We look at the map and talk about different routes but I think we've pretty much decided to play it all by ear.
We are aiming roughly for Chihuahua and the Copper Canyon, expecting to be well beyond the border by Christmas. After that, who knows? Perhaps through the colonial heartland and straight down to Guatemala. The only things we know for sure is that we will be in the Yucatan to meet up with some friends at the end of January and in Ajijic, near Guadalajara, to see my folks before we head home.

Take two is definitely more relaxed. Just as exciting with none of the trepidation. I am aiming to work some Spanish into the home schooling this year. We'll see how it pans out. I would love to give the girls enough of a vocabulary to make Mexican friends the way Henri did last year.

The snow, however lovely, feels like a cue. I can't wait.