As we pointed south from Canada, leaving deep tracks through the snow, we encountered our first adventure at the US border, when we clearly caught everybody by surprise with our appearance and our story. Our lack of "proof" about anything we said seemed to be the object of a stale-mate that threatened to hit us with our first unexpected twist. After a few hours of creatively trying to prove our innocence in the face of strong suggestions otherwise, we managed to escape with a hard slap on the wrist, some thorough education, and with a few new friends from the Department of Homeland Security. Unfortunately for reasons of "free trade agreements" and all sorts of stuff that didn't seem worth it to try to understand, we had to carry on without all the children's clothing we had been donated. The rest of our toys, medical, and school supplies were allowed through "just this once"! We had no choice but to take our warning gratefully.
For the next few days south of the border, we fought our way through endless miles of snowstorms, refusing to believe that winter was real enough to crash our party. But it definitely was, and it quickly began to confine us to the van for almost every waking (and sleeping) hour. The days were long slow drives, the nights were long frozen nights, however rich in scenery, company, and conversation. Our attempts to get out and explore were challenging and short-lived, and some of our nights became an exercise in survival. We were even pulled into a homeless shelter along the way and generously given warm beds to sleep in… a powerful gesture of generosity from a bunch guys who had very little apart from their hearts to help us along our way. But the cold and the snow quickly wore us down, and we came to an early decision point: that the next destination had to be somewhere with good weather. As the coin rolled to a rest on the floor of the van, the queen looked up at us and announced: "Utah"! She was right: the next morning we woke up to a desert sun and a blissful realization that we had managed to escape winter, skip spring, and arrive in summer…
A dramatic change of pace and weather in the last week has allowed us to settle well into the comfortable swing of life on the road. A passing reunion between Steini and an old friend from previous travels turned into a long and comfortable layover in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we found ourselves trapped by incredible hospitality and great company. A sunny few days of hammocks, slacklines, bonfires, yoga, music, hot springs, and new friends saw us off once again with soothed souls and a smile in our hearts.
Just over the next horizon we encountered our first international border: Texas! Surprisingly, the culture shock was less than anticipated, although at times the language barrier posed a few challenges! In the land famous for all things BIG, our first impression was one of big generosity, when our cause struck a chord in the friendly small town of Santa Anna. Before the morning was up, our modest gas-station fundraising campaign had turned into a series of energetic conversations, before culminating at the local diner with the promise that we wouldn't leave hungry. We didn't!
That road has now led us to the border city of Brownsville, Texas, for our first view of the ocean since the trip began. After just one day here, our patience and wits are already being tested as we prepare to face what is likely to be the crux of this journey: avoiding serious paper-cuts during the administrative adventure of getting into Mexico!
This week has seen very little road under our wheels, but has instead given us the chance to put many sandy miles under our feet. An unforeseen twist in the plot began at the Mexican border just over a week ago, when we learned that we could not enter the country as "tourists" but were instead doomed to a very small and specific immigration category called "transmigrants". Ironically, the level of ignorance and surprise we brought with us should have instantly qualified us to be "tourists", but no such luck. Transmigrants we are, and with that comes an additional pile of paperwork, limitations, and of course, expenses. The most challenging of these limitations is that we are now faced with a 10-day limit on our visit to Mexico, which has caused some serious recalculations to our itinerary, and forced a somewhat long layover north of the border.
With no other option than to find a place to park and settle in, we found ourselves with a whole lot of unexpected time on our hands on South Padre Island, apparently one of the great 'spring break' destinations, something of a Vegas of the Texan coast. Fortunately for us, we are on the opposite end of the calendar to spring break, and so setting up a temporary life in a van was possible, albeit difficult at first. We quickly discovered that this island has been "bumproofed" a few times over, and that the concentration of "no parking", "no camping" and "no trespassing" signs is probably higher here than anywhere else in the world. As the days went by, we began to discover cracks in the system, and armed with a dangerous combination of time, creativity, and determination, (and wealth of off-the-record experience!) it wasn't long before we managed to stretch these cracks enough to park an ambulance in there! We did suffer a couple of early warnings and strikes to our then-fragile reputation, including having a gun drawn on us in the middle of the night by an overly-suspicous police officer! But as the days continued, we found ourselves warmly welcomed into a great community of people beneath the plastic facade. The past few days have been some of the most memorable, not only of this trip, but of both our lives. It's often hard to understand how people can be so generous to a couple of strangers on the road, and equally bewildering how great friendships can develop in such a short time. All that is to say that time on the island has flown by and the place in which we first felt "stuck", now feels like a home that we are sad to leave.
Of all those who have contributed their parts to making our stay here what it was, there are 2 who deserve a seriously special mention. One is the Lakawa kiteboarding crew, who have spoiled us with more fun, friendship, and luxury than we could handle with a clear conscience, and whose generosity has far surpassed the boundaries of reason! The second is Kate from the Pura Vida Cafe, who took a wild and reckless chance in letting a couple of coffee-culture outcasts take full and unsupervised control of her coffee shop today in order to host an incredibly entertaining and successful impromptu gas-money fundraiser!
As we have said many times, we are again grateful beyond words to those that have helped us down this long road, and given us many memories and laughs along the way! Tomorrow is our last day in the US (or so we think!), and Tuesday morning we will make our second attempt at crossing into Mexico. This was always destined to be the crux of this journey, and life will no doubt switch gears dramatically on the other side as we venture deeper into the unpredictable. With growing apprehension, we welcome the challenges ahead and look forward to new friendships and new adventures!
Finally making it into Mexico seemed like the ultimate victory. Then reality set in, hard and fast, and emotions began to peak in all directions. The comforts, familiarity, and safety that had surrounded us for the last 4 weeks on the road had evaporated in an instant. We were now in a very different world, and the mission that had seemed so heroic, exotic, and fun just hours before, now had a context in which it was none of those things. We were alone in unknown territory, in the midst of an unfamiliar culture and language, and there was no turning back.
Sitting in the van, just seconds into Mexico, we began to take stock of our new situation. It was then that Carlos appeared, with a friendly face and perfect English. Without so much as an introduction, he immediately questioned our intentions and strongly urged us to reconsider our plan to set off from the border. "Nobody drives after 3 o'clock, you won't get far enough before dark". It was exactly 3 o'clock. The tone in his voice was one of sincerity and fear, and it was instantly clear that our only option was to take his advice.
And so it was that we found ourselves in a big dusty yard, just a hundred metres from the border, immersed in one of the more interesting micro-cultural pockets we'd ever experienced. For the first time it became clear what a "transmigrant" really was. These were people from all over Central America, each one of them driving a vehicle that was towing at least one other, carrying as much stuff as they could out of the US to bring to their respective countries. Even for Carlos, a native Guatemalan, this was an awe-inspiring sight that he would never forget. "Look all around you- everything you see… this is America's garbage, and who better to take it than all of us to our own countries". It truly was amazing beyond words. Many of the treasure-laden rigs were pick-up trucks towing chains of other vehicles, each one stuffed with motorcycles, washing machines, furniture, and whatever other supplies had been bought, salvaged, and acquired north of the border. Others were busses and trucks, stacked with progressively smaller vehicles until it was simply impossible for them to carry more.
As day turned into night and the border crossing closed, the last of the day's transmigrant caravans squeezed into the yard. That evening, our fortunes took an incredible turn for the best when we met Gramajo. Gramajo was a veteran trucker from Guatemala, regarded as somewhat of a "king of the road" in this transmigrant circle. He had 30 years of experience driving through Mexico, and his life was a never-ending cycle of overland trips from the US to Guatemala hauling impossibly large cargo. He spends so much time on the road that he doesn't even have a home. "My casa is… my truck!", he explained to us with a big jolly laugh. When he heard of our plan and our route, he simply shook his head, and told us that we were instead to follow him, do exactly as he does, and he would get us through the "zona caliente", the lawless bandito country of northern Mexico. "When I go, you go. When I stop, you stop. When I eat, you eat." It was only after this exchange that for the first time, we truly began to realize the danger of our surroundings, and all of the horror stories and warnings we had been listening to for weeks, months and years seemed terrifyingly real. If Gramajo was scared of the roads ahead, then we had reason to be as well. It was now clear that the yard full of transmigrants around us was a safety-in-numbers arrangement, and were were lucky to be in the middle of it and not alone lost out on the road somewhere.
Long before the sun rose, the yard was alive with headlights and engines as the first convoys began to roll out. When our turn came, we pulled apprehensively onto the paved road and set off into the hazy dawn, Gramajo in the lead, and our newest friend, Ricardo, behind. We couldn't help the feeling of being a small part of vulnerable herd, attempting to cross a jungle of hungry carnivores, but given the circumstances, we took comfort in knowing that we were protected by two of the the best bodyguards in the game. Ricardo's story was similar to Gramajo's, another friendly Guatemalan with 19 years of transmigrant driving under his belt. The next 15 hours on the road that first day created an incredible bond within our team. When we drove, we moved like a team- cutting and blocking for each other, communicating through actions and understanding. When we stopped, we ate together, shared stories, laughed, and enjoyed each others's company. Gramajo and Ricardo were long time friends but had never convoyed together, and neither had ever convoyed with gringos in an ambulance! Needless to say, it was a first for us too, and a special experience for everyone.
By the time our day's push was over, we had been through dozens of military and police checkpoints, paid countless bribes, and successfully made it through the most dangerous parts of the road. During an early morning bandito hold-up, the truckers had all been stopped and taken for a hefty sum of cash, an first ever for Gramajo in three decades on those roads. The ambulance managed to sneak away unscathed, drawing relatively little attention to its occupants!
At the end of our second long day in convoy, it was time to part ways with our loyal friends, as our paths were leading in different directions. In such a short time we had been through so much together, and it was with a great sadness that we bid each other farewell and exchanged parting gifts on the side of the road, knowing that we would probably never cross paths again.
CHAPTER 5: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!
As we began to settle into life on the Mexican road, our 10-day restriction became more and more burdening and forced us to accelerate our trip beyond a natural pace. We were beginning to feel robbed of an opportunity to explore our surroundings, instead forced to watch an entire world disappear past our windows. Nevertheless, our live-for-the-moment attitudes prevailed, got us stuck for a few days in a little pocket of coastal paradise, and left us facing a long stretch of road ahead on the tightest of schedules. The degree to which this decision was reckless became instantly clear when we hit an impassable road block soon after setting off. To calculate travel without factoring in Mexican randomness on the roads was to be blindly hopeful, and by this point we had no excuse for not knowing better. We took a chance, left ourselves without any room for error, and were now staring at a gridlock of traffic, held up by a protesting mob blocking our only road between us and our must-make destination. As we sat on the side of the road, the question of what to do next left us simply left us paralyzed by our own bad decision-making. Not even a minute later, out of the blue, the sound of sirens pierced the air and an ambulance raced by into the jam of traffic and people. In a split-second moment of pure reaction and no rational thought whatsoever, we jumped in behind it, flicked our own emergency lights on, and glued ourselves to its bumper as it bulldozed an impossible path through the madness. Sunglasses on, eyes forward, and hearts pounding, we crept through the crowd of armed police as they pulled apart the trees that they had laid across the road. By this time, reason had taken over and had us realizing that this could go horribly wrong and land us in a world of complicated trouble. Lucky for us, our impulsive gamble paid off, for beyond the barricade was nothing but open road. As the other ambulance raced off into the distance, we were alone on the road, high on our own adrenaline, loud whoops of laughter pouring out of our windows and into the wind.
The next morning we left Mexico, twice!… but we didn't enter Guatemala. It had been arranged for us to meet a guy called Jesus at the border, who was to be our man to help us get the van through customs and officially into the country. With a lifetime in the business of finding and exploiting holes in this dense wall of corruption, he was as smooth, cunning, and gentlemanly as a Guatemalan James Bond. It wasn't until we were with him on the front line that we began to appreciate the complexity of this task, and the importance of having an insider helping us do it. We learned that our shiny new ambulance had the customs officers salivating with greed, and that they were demanding payment in excess of 3 times what we had bought the truck for. What's more, refusal (or in this case, inability) to pay these "duties" within 48 hours would result in seizure and repossession of the van, and ultimately the same fate as if we had been robbed of it at gunpoint on the road. Coming from a world where corruption is either much less prominent or much better hidden, it's difficult to adjust to the idea that authorities, police, and many government officials are as destructive to the wellbeing of the people as big time criminals.
After 24 hours of juggling his professional responsibilities with his duty as a host, we learned that Jesus was fighting a losing battle. With the clock ticking, he needed to take his game to the next level, and for this he needed us out of the picture. So that morning we found ourselves on a bus, headed for the finish line without our ambulance. It was a strange and uneasy feeling to leave the van behind, but we knew there was no other choice. In our current situation, we were so far beyond our ability to understand or be in any way helpful. We just had to step back and try to take comfort in the fact that we were leaving everything in the hands of the experts. The rest of the day we anxiously awaited for good news from the border, and it wasn't until the middle of that night that it finally came. After working the kind of tricks straight from a Hollywood plot, Jesus was now at the wheel of the ambulance, lights off, sneaking through an network of small dark mountain roads… in his wake, a gang of drunk, bribed, and hustled customs officials!
The next morning we were reunited with the van in a flood of powerful emotions. Not only had we had to relinquish control at the crux of our journey in order to escape the ultimate disaster, but we had reached our destination, with our ambulance. We had done it! In so many ways, the road to this point had been so drastically different than we had planned and imagined, but none of this mattered anymore. As we opened the doors for the last time and began to empty all the shelves, drawers, and hidden compartments of our possessions, the moment began to sink in. We were moving out of a home unlike any other that we had ever lived in. We had named her "Mother Goose", mostly for the sound of her horn, but also the loyalty and protective instinct she had shown for us all along the way. Today we were saying goodbye to her, but more importantly, we were were seeing her off to a new family and a new home. She had served us well, and she would now serve others who would needed her far more than we did with the same love and the same loyalty.
The hours that followed were so completely unlike any others in our lives, and the memories of those are so powerful and inspiring that they will stay with us forever. At the Cuerpo Voluntario de Bomberos of Retalhuleu, we were received with open arms by some most energetic, enthusiastic, and grateful people we'd ever met. These men and women of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds, were the friendly faces of the local a rescue squad. With a diversity of skill and responsibility that covered everything from fire and medical emergencies, to technical water and mountain rescue, these were the local heroes that helped their people. As "bomberos", each of them had a role that was the equivalent to that of 3 or more separate professionals in other parts of the world, and they were volunteers! The passion that lay at the core of this team was contagious, and the pride with which they wore their uniforms spoke for itself. Their equipment, eduction, and training was all by donation and foreign volunteer contribution, and their commitment to their service should be an example to everyone. It was without question that our ambulance had found the perfect home to and the perfect people to serve, and each and every one of them let us know that.
What happened next was so unexpected and so surreal, but instantly became the culminating moment of our entire journey. This was the moment in which the true meaning of our project became clear and all of the questions of its purpose were answered. Like a pack of ecstatic kids with a new toy and new friends, the bomberos collectively decided that we should put on an impromptu parade around the city to celebrate their new gift. Before we knew what was happening, we found ourselves in the midst of a convoy of all their vehicles, old and new-- lights flashing, sirens blaring, and loudspeakers broadcasting the news to the people of Reu. The procession wound its way through the narrow crowded streets, drawing people out of their houses and shops to greet us with big smiles and friendly waves, to say thanks, and to watch in amazement. From the roof of one of the old ambulances, tears streaming down our cheeks, we sat in awe at the whole scene, simply blown away by the scale of the appreciation we were witnessing.
"I hope these words do some justice to the experiences of the last 48 days and 9479km on the road. If they do, it should hopefully inspire support for our next projects. There is no amount of money in our world that can buy the experience of giving like this, and no experience as satisfying. We have learned first-hand the harsh reality that helping people in this way is far from easy, but with the right attitude it can certainly be fun, and its rewards are beyond words. Corruption and greed are immense barriers, and many of the people from these countries are slaves to their own governments. We are incredibly lucky to come from the countries that we do, and we can be proud of our gestures like this that serve as a symbol of support and hope to those less fortunate than ourselves."
Chris Doyle-Kelly, WFL founder