Reflections From Mexico

This is a slightly belated post so apologies in advance. The margaritas, sand and surf have got the better of us. Who can blame us, we’re in Mexico. Anyway……. once upon a time, well, a week or so ago actually:

HotelWhile Liz cooks our supper on the camp stove in a basic but clean room, dust is swirling around in a choking fog on the streets outside. The dust is lifted by the rumbling trucks that constantly wind their way through this particular town in Mexico. I have no idea of the name of the place but it’s just like so many of the other towns we’ve passed through on our way South. It’s unclear where the sides of the road become the pedestrian areas, everyone fights for space on the road or roadside whether in a vehicle or not. It all feels a bit edgy to outsiders like us at first but even amongst the jostling and personal battles for a way through the melee, people smile at us, wave without inhibition and greet us with openness. This is the Mexico that dispels the myth that everyone is a murderous bastard caught up in the drugs war. Mexico is a book not to be judged by its cover. Millions of people live in places just like this, working hard, trying to make ends meet and looking after their families. There’s nothing here to speak of, just as there wasn’t in the previous town or any of the town before that. There’s little commerce, agriculture or money of any kind but somehow people seem to managing. Right now though, there is just dust, lots of dust.

It’s not a place we’d have chosen to stop given the choice. We were heading for a remote part of the Chihuahua desert that has a proliferation of deep blue fresh water springs, but a suspected broken CV joint has dictated that we stay here in this town for tonight at least and then work something out in the morning, hopefully, eventually. This evening is not a good evening, its been a stressful day ever since the knocking sound started coming from the front driver-side wheel but situations like this are what happens when your chasing the horizon everyday. Not every day is a good day. Such is life.

On the up side, we’re no longer freezing every night in the Rockies, we can now use our toothpaste as Colgate intended and we have exchanged endless mountains for endless desert. The Shadow of the Rockies Trail, which we had followed for over 1300 miles spat us out in the flat expanses of New Mexico. Now, at long last we can put our hot weather equipment to good use. New Mexico was a State we had always wanted to visit and then, upon reaching it we wondered what on earth possessed us ever to visit such a featureless place. That may be a little unfair on New Mexico, there was an interesting hillock or pattern of shadow once every few hundred miles or so as I recall. Only White Sands National Park really made the several hundred miles of very straight and very mundane dirt roads worth the effort. In amongst the flat expanse of a wide desert valley just left of Alamogordo the purest, whitest blinding gypsum dunes appear as an isolated sea of beauty surrounded by missile testing ranges and museums dedicated to the development of things used to kill people. It all seems a bit at odds but there is also every chance that the missile testing is the reason that the dunes are still around today. Despite the missile ranges though, the area is stunningly beautiful and more importantly, it was John’s first experience of great big fun-for-all-the-family dunes.

John, on the face of it is just like any other dog. Outgoing, happy, full of fun and loving. He is without any shadow of a doubt man’s best friend; certainly this man’s. However, when you consider that he’s still only 19 months old and in that time has had seven operations and lived for a long time on copious amounts of drugs, boxed into a metal cage he shouldn’t really be as fun loving and trusting as he is. He should be fearful, timid, even aggressive but no, he’s just an average crazy dog who when seeing sand dunes in the desert for the first time has crowds of people doubled up with laughter at his antics. He spent a good couple of hours running in every direction and often in no particular direction at all. He ate the sand, chased it, pounced on it and barked at it. He conquered the dunes in his own unique and stupidly over the top way. It was great to watch and unexpectedly emotional.
John in the dunes

Indias 1Beyond the dunes lay Texas and the splendor of Big Bend, the second and final National Park on our list of ‘must explore’ places since reaching Southern USA. A noisy rocker arm dictated another pit-stop for a swift oil change in the middle of nowhere and we reached Terlingua just as the sun was setting over the mountains of Big Bend. Covered in oil, harassed and hungry we checked into a motel under orange skies and slept like it was the first time in a week. Not feeling impressed with the buffet options of the hotel for breakfast the following morning we drove three hundred metres up the road to India’s Café. Little more than a shack with a lean-to porch it was nevertheless a popular little place and frequented by the locals too; always a good sign. In a thick London accent a guy of retirement age sporting chefs whites, nylon shorts, sandals and white socks asked us what we wanted and tried in vain to remember what the days specials were. We later discovered that after a life in the British Navy William had swapped a life on the ocean for a life in the desert thanks to his wife – India. They both shared a love of poetry and from opposite sides of the Atlantic swapped their own poems on an Internet poetry forum at a time when the Internet still used modems and telephone lines. India’s daughters said “Hell mom, if it don’t work out just send him back!” and on that note she invited him over and they’ve been together ever since. To watch them sharing a work area smaller than the average domestic kitchen and somehow being able to make fantastic food there’s little doubt that things worked out ok. The mischievous banter and little affectionate pats here and there confirmed it as well. India's bike

We had seemed to have been eating eggs with everything for an eternity so India made us up some beef tacos and a Bad-Boy Hotdog for me. The Bad-Boy consisted of a 12-inch hotdog wrapped in bacon, deep-fried and served in a bun with chili, onion rings and cheese. It was the most original breakfast I have ever had. It could only be called ‘inappropriately divine’. With full bellies we set off into a surprisingly heavy wind to explore the National Park. Threatening clouds hung over the mountains, the mountains we were heading for. Not put off we checked in at the Visitor Centre to get our wild camping permits, paid our $10.00 and excitedly drove on to see how close the Visitor Centre’s description was of our coming nights chosen spot. With the exception of a howling wind the description proved to be accurate. We could indeed see Mexico on the other side of the Rio Grande, we could even have thrown stones onto Mexican territory if we wanted to (and we did). However, now that the Rio Grande has been dammed it’s a shadow of its former self. It’s now more a case of Rio Trickle, silted up and full of invasive plants. Nevertheless we’d made it to the shores of one of the most historically influential rivers of the modern world. Aside from that, our campsite was nothing more than bare ground surrounded by a diverse range of cacti species. It was just what we wanted.

Not wishing to see our tent torn to shreds in the wind just yet we slammed the Niva into four-wheel-drive and set off into the remote corners of the Park on dirt roads of dry riverbeds, shingle and bedrock. We rocked and rolled our way across stunning landscapes of sandy cactus fields, sedimentary rock cliffs and expanses of shattered volcanic debris. As we climbed out of valleys and descended over rock-shelves we covered millions of years at a time. The area is impressive to say the least. Four hours later we emerged back onto the main paved highway, dusty, shaken, exhilarated and to the distinct hissing sound of a puncture. Evidently some of the sharp volcanic rock had bitten back and slashed a tire. Not to worry, we always kept a spare wheel on the roof where we could easily get to it without having to get everything out of the car first. Five minutes and we’d be rolling again.
tire change

 boxes on bonnetAn hour later just about everything had been removed from the back of the car and we’d attempted to jack the rear up seven times. We (I) hadn’t account for the fact that the weight in the boot (trunk) was behind the jacking point, as was the punctured rear tire. We were at first confused and then taken aback to notice that although we’d jacked up the rear of the car it was in fact the front wheel that was off the ground. So much for keeping the spare on the roof to make life easier. Systematically we lowered the jack again, removed some heavy stuff from the boot (yes, I know – trunk) and placed it on the bonnet (I mean – hood). As more stuff was piled on to the front with no discernable effect we then took it all off the bonnet for fear of denting it, opened up the bonnet and put everything directly on the engine instead. After an inordinate amount of time pissing about in the cold and ever increasing wind the spare wheel was finally fitted to the car.

We returned to our campsite finding it to be more of a dust bowl than ever and sat discussing our options as the wind rocked the car violently from side to side. Ninety minutes later and we were back at the motel feeling a little cheated. At least now back in Terlingua we could look at getting a replacement tire in the morning. Or so we intended. It transpires that the USA is very fond of its 15-inch wheels and it’s also very fond of its 17-inch wheels. Even 14-inch wheels can be come by. However, 16-inch wheels are more rare than rocking horse shit in the USA. They simply don’t exist. And of course we have 16-inch wheels as per the Russian standard. Maybe this is a new incarnation of the Cold War; it’s a theory anyway.

Morning came and it was back to India’s for breakfast and more Bad-Boy hotdogs. India, a proud and larger than life Texan woman through and through greeted every customer who came through her doors with a big hug and a playful thump on the arm. She used the excuse that it was for some past transgression during her long friendship with them. I asked how long she had to know a customer before she started to hit them and discovered it was just a couple of days, her order book hit the back of my head making me feel strangely at home. Just like so many of her other customers we were both also given hearty hugs from her as we left. William shook our hands and we parted for what we thought would be the final time.

We called in at the local store for water on our way back to the park to continue our sightseeing but found ourselves still there an hour later. Preparing to leave and checking my mirror to back out of the car park with our water safely tucked away a Ural motorcycle and sidecar pulled in alongside us. I nudged Liz, “Hey look at this!” I said looking towards her for a moment. I then immediately recognized the dog in the sidecar, complete with his crash helmet and goggles. I knew the rider had to be Ara, a man we had never met but whom we had known of for years via his Internet blog. Earlier this year we also became affiliated as both Ara & Spirit and Liz and I are supported by the Ted Simon Foundation. With mutual appreciation flowing freely between the five of us (including John and Spirit) an excited conversation soon sprung up and the cameras were out in a flash. It was a random and chance encounter that would later take us from respect on the Internet to a new and firm friendship. With India tutting at us as she found us still in the car park while she popped out for more supplies we pledged to stay with Ara & Spirit on the following Monday night. They don’t have an address as such, just directions off the highway into the desert, and with that we set off back into the park for a couple of days.
Moon over Big Bend
camp in Big Bend

AraMonday came and we found Ara & Spirit waiting for us just where they said they would be, living on their plot of land under a sky that goes on forever. John & Spirit did laps around the place like two mischievous kids without inhibitions. Anyone would have thought they had been friends all their lives. Spirit is a fine American Pit Bull who was abused as a young dog, rescued by Ara and now lives as his inseparable companion and is the perfect ambassador for American Pit Bulls the world over. They are undoubtedly lovely dogs. Visit Ara & Spirit’s blog (and it is ‘their’ blog) to read why. The Oasis of My Soul. We have followed Ara’s blog for several years, enjoying Ara’s insights, reflections and journeys, both spiritual and physical. I have admired his photography every bit as much too. He writes from the heart and for himself, it just so happens that what he writes is worth reading.Spirit

We pulled up a couple of chairs and an easy conversation went back and forth. Friends of Ara’s joined us too and we chatted late into the night under the huge stars of a Texas desert sky. It was a perfect afternoon and evening together. One of those rare occasions in life when everything feels right for a moment in time. The following morning was full of laughter and genuinely solid friendships as we put an inner tube into our punctured tubeless tire to give a round black thing a new lease of life. See the video here. A Second Chance For A Black Round Thing.
John and Spirit playing
Our evening with Ara was our last evening in the USA prior to driving to the town of Prosidio to cross the Mexican border the day after. We began our journey though the States with new friendships in New Jersey with our cousins-several-times-removed, Hannah & Paul and we left with new friendships in Texas. It sums the good old USofA up for us perfectly. Smiles all the way.

Next time:
• Its Mexico init,
• Something goes bang (repeatedly); and;
• No dogs allowed.

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Hard Travels

Hard travels headerLiz is somewhere ahead of me, already at gate 300. I’m running through the cavernous departure lounge with a case of camera equipment in one hand, a rucksack over one shoulder which refuses to stay there and slips further down my arm with every running step that I’m taking. Having tried to get through Security at lightening speed I’m also running with the laces of my boots undone and conspiring to trip me up. I have my trouser belt in my mouth and said trousers are determined to fall around my ankles at any moment. My arse is already exposed to the international community of Manchester Airport and there’s every chance that my plane is going to take off without me but with my beloved dog on board. Oh, the adventure of travel.

We thought our departure from the UK had been meticulously planned. The final week of packing up the house, cancelling the utilities, having surplus home furnishings collected and the remaining sentimental items taken over to Mum’s was all supposed to be a smooth transition from sedentary life to a life on the road. Flights had been booked, John’s shipping organised, the car was already steaming across the Atlantic on a cargo ship and an excess baggage company had quoted for the shipping of our additional luggage to be sent from England to Newark, USA. We even had a couple a days to spare for any contingencies that raised their ugly little heads at the last minute. Little did we know that everything would conspire against us to make the next few days a hellish ordeal.

It began with the monumental failure of the house clearance company to actually clear the house. The agreement was that they’d take everything and anything for a sum and sell everything on afterwards. They neglected to mention that they intended to charge us for the removal of anything they felt they couldn’t sell. It’s not the first time we’ve used a clearance company and it’s the usual arrangement that the household items are sold to them for a reasonable sum but a sum which allows them to then sell everything on for a profit. Everyone wins. Well, normally. We had unfortunately commissioned a cowboy and ethically reprehensible character. He’d had the list of our household items for a fortnight and said he’d take everything and pay us for what he could sell. It was only now that we stood in our living room with time slipping away and no other options that he dropped the bombshell on us. His plan was to bide his time until we were backed into a corner and charge us for removing everything, only to then sell it at 100% profit.

Not being especially overjoyed at the prospect of being taken for a ride we told him to get stuffed. A three day frenzy of selling and Freecycle commenced. We did ok selling the more serviceable items and it felt strangely good to be giving away so many of our possessions to total strangers. People were turning up three at a time to take away treasured desks, canoe paddles, settees and a hoard of similar disparate items. Unfortunately it meant that we’d lost nearly three days of breathing space. The final car load of sentimental items went over to Mum’s a couple of hours before midnight. All that remained was to finish packing; a job that had been scheduled to be done just after the house clearance company were due to take everything, but cocked it all up.

We went to sleep on the empty floor or our living room at 02:10 in the early hours and rose again at 04:00am to leave our home for the very last time. There was a slight pang of sorrow as we locked ourselves out of the place we’d called home for the last five years but getting back on the road was the right thing for us. Our good friends Roger & Karen had offered to take us to the airport and we watched a weak sun rise over the slightly frosted fields either side of the M6 motorway as dawn limped in. We were making good time and arrived at the Continental Cargo offices ahead of time to process the paperwork for John’s passage on our flight and have him safely tucked up in his crate in the hold of UA21, due to depart at 09:25am. Rabies certificates were inspected, Fitness to Fly certificates were read and re-read, everything was in order. And then we were left waiting for ninety minutes while staff did nothing either side of the 07:00am shift change. John was left sitting on the land-side concrete in temperatures just a little above freezing and we paced about impatiently looking for someone to do something. Eventually an apologetic forklift truck driver scooped John up and he disappeared into the cargo shed looking at us with confused and worried eyes. We hoped to see him on the other side.

Roger raced us round to Terminal 2 and bid us a speedy farewell as we wheeled three trolleys of bags to check in. Four bags were to fly with us, another five had been arranged to fly with the Excess Baggage Company and join us in the States after the weekend. Our first surprise was that United Airlines had just revised their baggage allowance so we were greeted with a bill for £120.00. We took it on the chin and vowed not to let it spoil what was supposed to be an exciting time as we stood on the cusp of a new period in our lives. We were also aware that time was short if we were going to get our remaining bags to the Excess Baggage Company in the lobby down stairs. The lift was out of order so somewhat to the annoyance of other travellers we dispensed with the trolleys and Liz stood at the bottom of the escalator while I fed five bags onto it from the top before stepping on myself. I thought it was an ingenious solution to a minor problem but the looks from a number of people suggested otherwise. As though some poetic justice was being meted out from said travellers, the Excess Baggage Company doors were firmly shut. The sign on the door stated that it opened at 08:00am sharp and it was now ten-past. We paced up and down, I popped next door to WH Smiths and asked if it was still trading, I was told it was. A further ten minutes passed and there was still no sign of activity. Our plane was due to take off at 09:25am and final boarding closed at 08:45am. We still had to go through security, get across the airport and find our gate. We couldn’t just dump our remaining bags, not least were they full of our carefully selected items for the road ahead but PC Plod may also have something to say about the ensuing bomb threat if we just left them where they were. At the last minute a light flickered on in the shop and was followed by the appearance of a sweating staff member who upon seeing the expressions of displeasure and mild panic written across our faces came to the door and opened up rather rapidly.

“We need to get these bags to Newark, New Jersey please. Our plane goes at 09:25 so we need to be quick.” We almost hurled the bags at him as he explained that his train had been late. He went on to say that it’d take him about twenty minutes to process each bag as we needed to make a list of the contents, complete Customs declarations, liability waivers and measure, weigh and x-ray each bag.
We understood that it wasn’t his fault that the train was late but we were running out of time fast “We have to be on the plane by 08:45, we have a dog on the plane and we can’t miss it.” I went on, “We have a reference number for the quote we were given for sending the bags to Newark, its here,” I showed him.
“Oh, right.” He said, “I’ll still need to complete everything and give you a final price.” He went on to read out in painful details a list of seven terms of service. “You may be charged additional Customs fees, items may be confiscated, shipping may take up to three weeks…….”
“Let me just stop you there! It says on the website that it’ll take up to three ‘days’, not weeks.”
“Well, it could be three weeks if your bags go by sea freight.”
“This is an airport, I want them to go by air please. I don’t mean to be rude but can we just get the bags processed so that we can make our plane.”
“Of course. I’ll weigh and measure them if you could complete the forms. Do you want additional insurance?”
I passed him our bags ignoring the question. Twenty minutes of form filling, measuring, weighing and calculator work ensued as our blood pressure rose higher and higher while the clock ticked.

In short, even through the total weight of our five bags was less than the weight quoted for, the bill came to four times the original quote. It was more than it had cost us to ship our car. We argued, there was nothing we could do, we signed and we ran. It was now 08:40. God, how we ran. Our panicked expressions said it all when we reached the first security check and a sympathetic security officer ushered us to the front of the queue for the empty-your-pockets stage. Just one person was in front of us. As we removed belt, boots, wallets, laptops and bras (almost), we watched the x-ray machine grind to a halt as the operator scrutinised the bag of the lady in front of us. Even I could see that she’d secreted and entire hotel mini-bar in her hand luggage. Not good, not good at all. I wasn’t sure if the operator was trying to read the labels on the bottles or had suddenly fallen asleep but either way nothing was moving. I clutched my now beltless trousers in one hand and boots in the other, willing the machine to move. Finally it did and we pushed passed the lady to collect our paraphernalia as she was taken to one side. I told Liz to just run for it, I’d gather everything up and meet her at the gate. “Just make sure they don’t close the gate. If I’m not there just go. One of us needs to be there in Newark for John!”

Liz didn’t stop to think, she just ran, boots in hand. Gathering up our two bags, the laptop, slipping on my boots and carrying my belt I ran after her with all the grace of a teenager who’d just had the night of his life with several bottles of vodka. Only at times like these do you truly appreciate the role of a belt and the fact that laces should always be done up, no matter what. All gates were located on the other side of the duty free shop, a shop that went on for miles and consisted of narrow isles full of people with wide bags. Like a raging bull I flew through the shop almost screaming at people to move. Most did and those that didn’t were left with a bruise and a shouted apology from a madman on a mission.

Predictably Gate 300 was as far away as it was physically possible to be while still remaining in Manchester. It was miles away. I ran, my trousers were determined to go south, my laces flailed and I gasped for air between the clenched teeth holding my belt. Up on the left I saw the figure 300, I smashed through two closed doors, descended three flights of stairs ≥≤and emerged into a departure lounge shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people. “Is this the gate for Newark?” I asked someone.
“No, I think that’s it over there.” I looked to my right and there was Liz, standing beside an impassive United Airways member of staff. She mouthed to me “It’s ok, we made it.” I could have fallen to my knees there and then if it weren’t for the very real risk that I would never have got up again.

We made the flight, we eventually found John at the other end and we finally made it to Princeton to be greeted to warm friendship and hospitality by Hannah and Paul, my distant cousins who we had never previously met.

We still don’t have the excess baggage though.

The Hungarian drug addict

Meet John – a Hungarian Vizsla who in his short life has to date popped nearly 4,800 pills. He simply can’t get enough of them, and he’s less than eighteen-months old. As though this weren’t enough, he has a real thirst for knives, razors and steel bars.

John at 15 weeksWhile he may sound like a 1980’s skinhead there’s actually quite a reasonable answer for all this. Unfortunately, at a young age his hocks didn’t form properly. Instead of them forming as bone the growth plates formed as soft tissue which couldn’t take the stresses of normal puppy life. Unsurprisingly it all ended in disaster when both legs failed. To cut a long and depressing story short, he’s had six operations and ten months of rehabilitation to put things right. At this moment in time he is sporting a rather unattractive and industrial looking metal frame on his right leg which prevents him from moving it and putting any strain on the damaged area while it heals. Fingers crossed, everything is going in the right direction and he’ll be fit to travel in three months time. His left leg now looks normal and is strong enough to take his weight until he can put pressure on his right leg again. The four steel pins and wire frame under the skin, along with the four-inch scar are the only clues to the history of his left leg.

So, John continues to pop pills, wear the dreaded ‘cone of shame’ around his neck to prevent him from pulling the scaffolding out of his leg as soon as our backs are turned. Touch wood this will all be behind us soon and the three of us will be on the roads of Mexico (and off-roads) soon enough.