The Days of Andy


“Andy has had an accident. Can you go to Chetumal?”

These words defined our New Year.

Since we and Andy went our separate ways from the chilly mountains of Sierra Madre to go in search of water pumps and tropical Christmas’ we’d been playing leap-frog around southern Mexico, exchanging emails about where each of us was heading to next, revising suggested rendezvous points as our dynamic plans changed almost daily. Andy spent Christmas diving in Puerto Escondido on the West coast. We intended to spend our Christmas on the East coast, South of Veracruz but found only disappointment there. Guide books are subjective things and our guide book lead us to believe that our chosen Christmas destination was a place of tranquillity, endless beaches and culinary delights. It transpired to be a coastline of scruffy villages, barbed wire fences and scowling faces. We felt as welcome as a turd in a coffee pot and left swiftly. A six hundred mile drive along the coast to the Yucatan ensued and we found our corner of paradise fifty miles down a dirt track in the middle of nowhere at four o’clock on Christmas Eve.
IMG_jungle roadThe track bumped us along limestone bedrock, between jungle palms and savannah, into mile upon mile of mangrove and eventually to a remote lagoon with flamingos and pelicans as our festive neighbours. The ruins of Isla De Jaina were lapped by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico and it was all ours. Beside the lagoon we made a long-deserted visitor centre our home for Christmas.
IMG_visitor centre1Hammocks were slung, the tent was pitched on the terrace of the visitor centre and our days were filled with swimming, eating and watching sunsets and wildlife.
IMG_dinnerChristmas dinner, lunch and selected nibbles consisted of caviar, coconuts, cottage cheese, steak and garlic shrimps. An eclectic mix of our favourite foods (not all eaten together!). It had been a hard won paradise-Christmas but we found it and loved every second of it. We had our very own visitor centre, a fifty-metre high observation tower, the company of birds, tapirs, wild cats and manatees. It took three days of hard driving and nights in a selection of pay-by-the-hour love hotels but we got there in the end.
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One of the better Love Hotels!
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From the ruins of Isla De Jaina we drove East to Bacalar, a small town on the shore of another turquoise lagoon of the same name. The lagoon was beautiful and the town was quiet but there was something missing. We still dreamt of having at least one margarita for Christmas, but we weren’t going to find it in Bacalar. We drove on to Majahual. Eight Years previously Majahual had been the scene of a very fondly remembered Christmas with a fellow called Raoul, his young wife and a scorpion up my trousers. (Another story for another time.) Majahual was devastated by a hurricane in 2007 and we were keen to see if Raoul was still there and if a margarita could be had on the silvery sands of the village.

Since the hurricane and huge rebuilding programme has taken place and the people of Majahual have done a good job of bringing a devastated village back to life. Unfortunately however, the isolated charm and thatched cabanas have been replaced by concrete hotels and party-all-night bars. Its not the place it used to be and Raoul is no longer there. We found his house but it is long abandoned and just a shell of what it once was. We drove down the old coast road, dodging deep potholes and dogs to find an alternative place to stay. We found it and we even found our margaritas but neither us nor John found the tranquillity we sought. With hoards of unfriendly dogs in every direction we spent our time fending them off and protecting John. We’d have moved on again had it not been for our intended rendezvous with Andy. He was hot on our heals and due to meet us the next day, intending to overnight in Bacalar to avoid riding after dark and spend New Year with us.

“Andy has had an accident. Can you go to Chetumal?”

These were the words that Liz read through sleepy eyes at six-thirty the next morning. The email said little else but we believed he had a suspected broken ankle. We piled ourselves and John into the Niva and drove South to the border city of Chetumal via Bacalar to collect Andy from the hospital and his bags from the police. There are three police forces in Mexico – the Municipal Police, the State Police and the Federal Police. None of them in Bacalar had his bags and a few hours of detective work ensued. Everything Andy had in Mexico was in those bags (including his insurance documents) and it was vital that we tracked it down. Finally we found it in a Police holding yard, still strapped to a motorbike that had bounced hard very recently. Eventually we also found Andy. The sight was shocking.

Bloodied sheets, bloodied body, a drip, broken and dislocated ankle, broken knee and broken ribs. He lay on a beaten up gurney in a corridor looking as alone as anyone I have ever seen. He had been the victim of a hit and run accident as he rode into Bacalar at 4:00pm the afternoon before. A rural pick-up style bus had done a U-turn right in front of him. He’d done his best to swerve out of the way but it clipped his knee and bike at around sixty miles per hour. He said he could remember trying to stay conscious, unable to move and wandering if the next vehicle to come along would finish the job off. It was one of those accidents that could happen at any time, anywhere in the world. Unfortunately it was Andy’s time.

It was perfectly clear that Andy was not going anywhere anytime soon and we relocated to be closer to him. We spent New Year’s Eve with at the hospital and beside the lagoon at Bacalar after all but there wasn’t much celebration taking place, more drowning of sorrows if anything, despite the view.
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There are two hospitals in Chetumal, one for the people who can afford to pay their taxes and the other is for all those people who have very little in the world. Andy was with the poor, where the minimum of care is given, where resources are stretched beyond breaking point and where staff do their best but its not good enough. We have known Andy for over ten years and he is one of our closest friends. Many a good evening has been spent putting the world to rights or talking of or woes, laughing and sharing the good times and the bad together. We know Andy a hell of a lot better now. Between the three of us we have shared bed baths, sworn, shouted (a lot), stolen equipment, made tea, cried and laughed. It has been an unmitigated week of hell for Andy, for us, for his family and his friends. It has also been a week that has shown us what friendship really means, the kindness of relative strangers (again), the complete lack of compassion by others and just what teamwork can achieve. We waved Andy off from the airport yesterday, bound for a hospital in England, an operation and a few months of mending.
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We were on hand and able to be at his bedside but so many other people rallied round for Andy and got him home. His sister and wider family in the UK, his girlfriend, Gary and Danielle in Mexico City, America in Chetumal, Louis in Bacalar. One thing is for sure; Andy is well loved by a lot of people.

Andy, we love you dearly and will send you the hospital bill soon.

Oh, and P.S. Happy New Year everyone.

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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.
Above GTO1
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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machaninc casa 2
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.

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.