Is It The End of the World?

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7 Days ago
It’s the 2012 Maya End of the World Rally and we’re being led into Guanajuato by a Police escort as part of the official parade from which the rally will start. It has been hard work, stressful and expensive to get to this point. The past four weeks have seen the little Niva taken apart and put back together again with only hours to spare before the rallybegins. New ball joints, bushes and wheel bearings. Its been an expensive nightmare to get to this point but we’ve finally made it. We’re in the procession and everyone is on a high. The excitement and anticipation of the rally ahead is intoxicating. And then we hear a dull thump and the car lurches to the right. A few seconds later we hear a loud and rapid grinding sound coming from the front right wheel. After all the work and hope another faulty wheel bearing is in the process of bringing our rally to an end. After just half a mile. With our hazard lights flashing, the Niva grinds to a halt and we can only watch all the other competitors drive past us, all bar one. Nothing much is said. What can be said. Fortunately, the mechanics who we’ve come to trust are only a short distance away so we do a U-turn to head back down hill to the sound of metal tearing itself apart.
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The mechanics see us pull into the garage and their faces fall in disappointment. Only a few hours before five of them were working feverishly on the car. Fitting parts, changing fluids, washing and polishing. They look just as disappointed as we are. However, within ten minutes, despite the red hot metal, they’re taking off the wheel to replace the faulty bearing.

Four hours later we were still there but the determination of our personal pit crew had us back on the road and in pursuit of the other competitors by late afternoon. Fortunately the first challenge of the rally was local to Guanajuato so we hadn’t lost any distance, only points. In the meantime we’d managed to find an Internet connection and sent Andy Pattrick a message. He’s our good friend and only other English competitor in the rally. We arranged to meet in the high desert above Guanajuato for the night before carrying on with the rally to the next challenge. Just as dark fell we found him waiting in the middle of nowhere for us as only a good friend would.
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5 Days ago
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Today, I’m sitting in the clearing of a forest surrounded by Monarch butterflies. It’s a stunning part of Mexico, three-thousand, three-hundred metres up in the mountains. Pine trees are all around and sunset orange Monarch butterflies dance in the air in every direction. Our tent sits beside a trickling mountain stream in a wide natural clearing which offers views along the valley for mile upon mile. Reaching the breeding grounds of the Monarch butterflies was one of the challenges of the rally. Everything here is beautiful. However, I’m not interested. I’m sick of our bad luck, the hand of fate and the injustice of everything. Coolant is dripping from the water pump in a steady stream and once again our rally seems to be over. The bearings and seal in the pump have gone this time. Will anything ever go our way? We know that whatever is ahead of us will involve limping to somewhere where we can source new parts and a wait of who-knows how long. Sometimes life on the road offers little enjoyment. Two days of trouble free running after five weeks of hard work to get the car ready seems very unjust. We love the Niva and its taken a hammering on its journey South from New York. We can’t blame it for having another fault but a little more than two days of problem free driving would have been nice. Andy is still with us and his company and second opinion help, but we need to think about our options.
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3 Days ago

We waved Andy off this morning with mixed emotions. The three of us have spent three days and nights up in the mountains with the Monarch butterflies. Even without our mechanical problems we wouldn’t have continued with the Maya Rally. The organisation of the event did little to convince us that it was a worthwhile endeavour and our interest in the whole thing has died. Andy felt the same and three days in the mountains seemed like a far more attractive and relaxing option. However, our mechanical problems have dictated that we must go our separate ways. Andy is here celebrating his 40th birthday and we will not allow our problems to get in the way of that, even if he would. Andy is going to follow the dirt roads South through the high mountains on his 250cc dirt bike. He’ll have the time of his life and we’re pleased he’s off enjoying himself.
Andy
After much study of maps and weighing up of our options we plan to head towards Oaxaca to get the water pump fixed. With luck the bearings will hold up and with regular stops to top up the coolant and oil (which is also bleeding out), we’ll get there in two days.

Later……

The thermostat needle is in the red and we’ve pulled off the road with steam bellowing out from under the bonnet. We’re in the middle of nowhere again and the water pump has died to the sound of a screaming bearing. We’ve done fifteen kilometres (9 miles). We sit beside the road for an hour before seeing if we can limp any further. Ten minutes later and we’ve made it to a State-owned Pemex petrol station but the needle is already back in the red and there’s no way we can go any further. The Pemex station is on the edge of a small village and we ask around for a mechanic. This is not where we wanted to be. There are more donkeys than cars here, but an older man comes over to offer assistance. It’s hard to understand him but the upshot is that he knows of a mechanic and he drives off in rusted VW beetle. Thirty minutes later he returns but hasn’t been able to find the mechanic. Three hours later and we’re still at the petrol station but eventually someone comes over on a BMX bike with a King Charles spaniel variant in hot pursuit. It turns out he’s the mechanic. His home and garage are only around the corner so we kick the engine over and drive up the hill as slowly as we can while he peddles as fast as he can.

That night…..

The mechanic has taken the water pump apart and only confirmed what we already know, the inside of the pump is a mess. But with parts it’s salvageable, if the parts can be found. Lada Nivas are as rare as honest politicians in Mexico (or anywhere else) and unless we’re in luck and the parts that we need are universal we’re going to have a problem. However, for now, without camping options or hotels anywhere near, we are camping in the mechanic’s brother’s partly built house. It’s a concrete shell but it also happens to be in the same yard as the garage. It will do us ok for the moment and the mechanic and his family have been nothing but wonderful. They are good people and we’re lucky to have found them.
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2 Days ago
Zitacuaro is a bustling city built for function and little else. There are no beautiful plazas, parks or splendid churches. It exists to meet the needs of people who need stuff. I’m one of them and I’m standing in the fifth shop that sells water pumps for cars. I never knew there were so many variations on the pump of a car cooling system. There are hundred of them. Its mind boggling. What is even more mind boggling is that the specific shape of the pump for a Lada Niva is not covered by any of the numerous variations available. Having run out of shops for ‘bomba de agua’ it’s on to a fabricators. If I can’t buy one I’ll have it made. Mexicans are nothing if not resourceful. There is very little that isn’t possible with time and cash. The fabricator weights up the challenge with my broken pump in his hands. After some time he eventually gives me the nod and tells me to return in three hours.

Three hours later I have a shiny new pump in my hands, still warm and covered in wet paint. But he guarantees that it’ll work and for less than £30.00 I find that I’m smiling for the first time in days. Smiling genuinely as opposed the half-hearted smiles I’ve become used to giving people when something is on my mind.

Hopping into the first taxi I can flag down I return to my friendly mechanic still smiling and he can see my relief. Everyone is pleased for us and either in celebration or to give the mechanic space to work, his family pile us and John into a pick-up and we go off for a picnic by a local lake. In a time of adversity we’ve been fortunate enough to collide with a lovely family. They’re caring, honourable and a little crazy, in that particular Mexican kind of way. There are so many family members here that they seem to tumble from every pore of the three houses that fringe the garage. We had a great time but it was ironic that we had to call our mechanic out when the pick-up refused to start on the return back.
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We spent a couple of evenings with our new friends, laughing, talking and comparing our different lives. In many ways they weren’t that different – aspirations, hopes, dreams etcetera but as we talked by the light of the kitchen fire pit under a corrugated iron roof, we couldn’t escape the fact that these people had very little in the world but they had given us everything they could offer. When our car broke down yet again we thought everything was going wrong. As it happened, it was a necessary evil that allowed us to meet some lovely people and be reminded of the kindness of strangers.

Today
We have just over two-hundred miles under our belt today and the temperature gauge is reading just under 90 degrees – exactly where it should be. The wheels are quiet and the differential is doing its job without fuss. Every hour I’ve checked the oil and water levels and they’re still fine each time I look. Everything is as it should be. Except my composure. The last few weeks have taken their toll and until a good few days of trouble free driving have gone by I don’t think I’ll relax. Every squeak has my heart beat racing. The Maya Rally feels like a world away and just a distant waste of time. All I’m concerned about now is finding somewhere for Christmas where I can relax with a margarita. But one thing is for sure. Wherever I find that margarita, I’ll be toasting the numerous people who have helped to keep us going when it all felt so desperate. Mexicans, and everyone else alike – thank you.

The Rewards of Guanajuato

Today is Liz’s birthday. We spent the morning wandering around the city of Guanajuato, relaxing, chatting and eating a small lunch with some rather dodgy wine. While we ate, a kid of eight or nine years old came over to us. His clothes were hanging off him, he was covered in dust and he was hungry. We gave him a bread roll with some butter on it and he wandered off satisfied in some small way. It made us think for a moment about why we’ve been in Guanajuato for over three weeks now and our conversation turned to the workshop that Liz would be doing later in the day (and is now at while I write this).

CameraWe’re working with Katie, who is the Director of a not-for-profit organisation in Guanajuato that works with people around the city to raise awareness of issues, develop positive relationships and generally help those people who are less fortunate than most. With Katie, we’re working with two groups of young people who’ve had a raw deal (and still are having a raw deal). Liz is now in La Venada, a poor district of the city which suffers from the ravages of poverty. She’s there teaching photography and developing a ‘photo-map’ and 3-D map of the area with both children and adults to explore some of the plusses and minuses of the place. In many ways there’s a strong community in La Venada but it’s a largely forgotten and misunderstood area of Guanajuato. A photo-map is a simple thing but it helps people to explore what they like, don’t like, want to change and develop ideas. Even in poor communities people have the right to aspirations and new skills. Liz is enjoying her visits to La Venada and we inevitable spend a lot of time talking about our two projects. Liz has La Venada, I have Buen Pastor Home for Girls.Lav1

IMG_BPastorsmall1I’m working (and laughing) with a group of young girls who during the week live in a church run home for girls, but each weekend have to return to their real homes to face poverty and sometimes abuse ranging from minor stuff to extremely major stuff. I’m working with the girls (and one lad) to teach them how to use photography to document and explore their lives at the home with the nuns, or Madres who look after them. They’ve also chosen to use photography and interviews to explore the world of street dogs and the people who do what they can to care for them.
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Every single child on the project has asked to take part and they come along to the workshops religiously. (Excuse the pun – entirely intended). They listen, they enjoy themselves and they concentrate on the projects in hand. They are dedicated to photography and to each other. Not one of them complains about their situation, or shows any sign of anger (to us) or goes around with a chip on their shoulders. These are children who deserve our time and are children who I’ve come to respect for their strength of character. I’ve also come to admire the Madres who look after them.
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There are few people who are more cynical about religion than me. (Religion as opposed to faith that is.) I find it too difficult to believe in a Divine power that seemingly sits back and allows so many atrocities of mankind to take place. No- religion is not for me thank you very much. However, just as man commits atrocities, man is also capable of incredible acts of kindness. I have only admiration and deep respect for nuns who look after the children at Buen Pastor. I’ve heard that God is all about love. I have no idea if that is true any more than I know if God exists at all, but what I do know is that the place in which I am working is overflowing with love. Love with a capital ‘L’. I have never heard a raised voice; I only hear laughter and reason bouncing around the thick walls of the old Colonial building. There’s calmness about the place. The streets of Guanajuato rattle with the sounds of barking dogs, busy traffic and difficult lives. When I step through the tall narrow double doors where these girls live and I hear the latch close behind me, calmness descends in a veil of tranquility. It is literally a safe haven from the outside world. I walk along open corridors to be greeted by the big, white smiles of the girls. I walk around a corner and find a Madre sitting on a stool as she combs the hair of a little girl and they both look up and say hello warmly. A couple of other girls run past and shout “pizza” at me. An in-joke from when I ordered one-too-many pizzas with them while out photographing the city with them. Then I see the psychologist and I’m reminded of what this place really is. It’s a happy place for girls with deep, deep scars. It’s a privilege to be trusted by them and I’ve become very fond of them. Both the girls and the Madres alike.
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For anyone who travels and would like to really get under the skin of a place while also doing something for someone else, take a look at www.dogoodasyougo.org

IMG_BPastorsmall5In the mid-sixteenth century, John Bradford was reputed to have uttered the words “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” His words were later popularised as “There but for the grace of God go I.” Well, maybe there’s some truth in that.

In the meantime, we’re also trying to prepare for the 2012 End of the World Maya Rally. We’re supposed to be taking part in the challenge-event from the 12th to the 21st December but things hang in the balance for us. Our four-wheel-drive Lada Niva only has two wheels at the moment and its questionable that we’ll get the parts in time to fix it before the start of the rally. However, we have good friends in Guanajuato and should we miss the rally, we’ll laugh in the face of adversity with Katie (aka Clancy), her boyfriend – Alex (aka The Doctor (‘cos he is)), and Beth (aka – Sweet Cheeks).
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Our good friend from England – Andy Patrick also arrives today or tomorrow to join us here and on the rally, should we make it. The Niva may not be well but things could be a lot worse.

Happy Birthday Liz. I hope you like the new wheel bearings and other spare parts that I got you!

Next time:
Elvis is in the building,
More doing good stuff; and,
The 2012 Maya Rally starts to warm up.

The Maya End of the World Rally

Maya rally blackIf the UK economy is anything to go by, the end of the world could well be just around the corner, just as the Maya predicted. Apparently, according to some interpretations of the stela and scriptures that litter the abandoned pre-colonial cities of Central America, on the 21st December 2012 we are to be destroyed by a cataclysm which will herald a new era for the world. Unfortunately we all die in the process.

So, with this in mind it makes sense to abandon our society values and expectations and say in a very loud voice “Sod it, I’m going out with a bang.” From what I understand, when people are presented with the prospect of certain death, in general the men think of fornicating in the streets with numerous and all too willing babes, while the women think of crying into a family-size tub of chocolate ice cream. It strikes me that a man with an ice cream van prior an apocalypse would have it made, in the short term at least.

I don’t have an ice cream van and Liz might have a thing or two to say about it if I go in search of babes, so we have instead entered The Maya End of the World Rally

To encourage a competitive spirit and the not-too-serious side of the rally the organisers have asked all teams to write a short biography. We have obliged:

The team members:
Driver – Chris Smith
Navigator – Liz Peel
Security – Johnny V.

We are the people behind Finding Manchester, expeditions to lost Amazonian villages and contributors to many adventure overland books, including the acclaimed ‘The World’s Great Adventure Motorcycle Routes’. We are also supported by the Ted Simon Foundation and honored to be Jupiter’s Travelers. Sounds good doesn’t it, and its all true!

It’s also true that we just bumble along and things either work or they don’t, the latter being the more common outcome. Don’t ask us about our failed attempt to get a tuk-tuk over the Andes or the failed canoe adventure to reach the Island of the Sun or dodging lava in the volcano fields of the Atacama Desert. (unless you’ve bought us a drink first).

We will be winning the 2012 Maya Rally (note the choice of words there!) in a 2009 Lada Niva 1.7i. We’re two Brits with a disabled Hungarian dog in a Russian 4×4. What more do you need to know than that eh!

For anyone interested in the Maya 2012 prediction read the following link (in blue). For anyone who wants to bury their head in the sand or is a disbeliever, don’t read it but if you see lots of women with tubs of chocolate ice cream don’t say I didn’t warn you! The end of the world may or may not be just around the corner (but probably not).

Cheezy Brits are coming

Team Niva GB is born

Having watched our careers and business activities crumble for long enough at the hands of necessary Government cuts and apathetic Public Sector naval gazers, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of a fire called “tits-up”, Team Niva GB is born.

Cheezy Brits are comingWith our Hungarian drug addict – John, we’ll be shipping a Russian Lada Niva to Mexico via the USA and entering the Maya ‘End of the World’ Rally. The rally is a good few months off yet and there’s a lot of work to be done before we cross the start line of that particular adventure, but that’s our medium-term goal at the moment – Dispose of everything that we don’t need to live on the road, pack everything else up, say a few goodbyes and bugger off. Life, for a great many reasons has been far tougher than it should have been for far longer than it should have been, so our response is the birth of Team Niva GB.