From December 2009-June 2010.
From Van en Van.
My personal rock-bottom of our journey came in the town of Ajijíc, a charming town filled with American expats on Mexico’s Lake Chapala. After spending a first night in an expensive (450 pesos—almost $40) hotel because I was feeling sick, we went to Guadalajara and then returned and decided to park the van on the waterfront next to a park with bathrooms and spend the night for free, overlooking the lake.
That night, I lay awake as my stomach rumbled and various cars came, parked, and left. Whenever we park and sleep anywhere—which is most every night–Juan and I have some form of discussion about how good of a camping spot the place is. Safety is our number one concern. We don’t want to park anywhere the car is likely to get hit, or where we think we might attract unwanted attention, which means constantly negotiating the grey area between spots that are completely deserted and areas that are filled with people.
Although a mass murder had taken place in Ajijíc several months earlier, the issue that preoccupied me that night was not safety, but plumbing. My personal plumbing was still in recovery, and the many bathrooms in our camping spot were not open when I needed them. As soon as the sun rose, I wandered the town picturing all manners of humiliation and hating our new, free-wheeling existence, where it felt like forty percent of my waking hours were spent pondering when and where I would use a bathroom and praying my bladder and bowels would cooperate. I did not feel free and alive, as I had hoped this trip would make me feel—I felt like a slave to modern plumbing.
Everything was like this at first. After leaving San Francisco, I felt more tethered to it than ever before. I spent a surprising amount of time thinking about everything we had left behind, obsessing over the most mundane things, especially the floral blue sofa bed we’d pushed out onto Jackson Street the day we moved. From that sofa, you could see almost the entire apartment: a bed piled with pillows and blankets, our personal bathroom, a kitchen with a stocked refrigerator, running water, and an endless supply of gas for cooking. I could see the door of the closet full of clothes I had, shoes for almost every grade of social occasion, jackets and scarves for every varying degree of chill. How had I packed so few clothes for all kinds of weather? At night in unfamiliar places, I found myself closing my eyes and picturing myself on that sofa. When I was feeling insecure, I calmed myself by recalling how comfortable I was sitting there, how safe I felt inside that apartment. Sometimes, this was enough to lull me to sleep. But every morning, I woke up with the same tedious fear that my bladder and bowels might not cooperate with the unknown scope of our day.
My family members often describe me as the most risk-tolerant one of our clan, but during our first month in Baja I began to realize that my “adventurous” behavior is probably better attributed to an inability to accurately assess risk than an increased tolerance for precarious circumstances. The trip didn’t seem risky so much in the way of personal safety, but financial well-being. Rather than enjoying the freedom and beauty of Baja, I felt like I was wasting my life on these hot beaches doing nothing. I felt guilty about all the money I was spending, and even more so about the money I was not making. I wondered if this long vacation from the job market would render me completely unemployable. The oppressive heat cooked our skin and leeched every last drop of moisture and salt from my body, but my anxieties managed to persist.
I also felt physically boxed in by the van and the clutter within the van. All of our belongings were constantly in disorder or buried under something else. Juan and I were always in each other’s way. Simple things became very complicated. Getting dressed meant clearing space to open the closet door, then rooting out a clean tee-shirt from our storage bags—or, more likely, picking the shirt off the front seat that I’d worn the day before. Making coffee meant first putting away all the dishes that were stacked on top of the burners, drying from the night before, and again clearing space in order to gain access to the coffee in the food compartment. I could not escape the horrible thought that I was simply not cut out for life on the road, and that this trip would turn out to be nothing but a long and stubborn exercise in misery and perseverance. I coveted the hotel nights we would indulge in about once a week, lingering in the shower and sprinkling my belongings around on the floor.
I don’t know exactly when that began to change, but I know that by the time we arrived in Guatemala our eighth month on the road, I was getting sick of hotels. I no longer coveted the security of a room, and began to dread them—the airless rooms with scratchy sheets and a lonely bulb-less lamp instead of our familiar pillows, the cross-breeze through our tent flaps and the trusty glow of my headlamp. I gained enough control over my body so that I could enjoy the mornings, rather than seeing them as gross challenges to overcome. Mornings are now my favorite part of the day. I know I am going to see new things today. I know I am going to learn something. I know I am going to have to be patient and open and alert in order to make it through the day.
Every overland traveler battles different personal foes, but these issues tend to be maddeningly mundane: breaking an addiction to modern plumbing, trying to eat well, missing family and friends, dealing with bureaucracy. It’s humbling to realize that as adventurous as we may be, the things we most take for granted are the ones that end up bringing us to our knees. It’s only when we can learn to manage our new pared-down lives that we can begin to truly enjoy the adventure we intended for ourselves.
After my last visit to San Francisco for Thanksgiving, I was struck by how overwhelming my life there seemed. Don’t get me wrong—I loved my life in San Francisco. We lived in a beautiful apartment in a wonderful part of the city. I walked to a yoga studio a few times a week. I jogged to the bay fronting the Golden Gate Bridge. If I wanted Vietnamese food, I got it. I drank strong coffee and ate good cheese. I rode Juan’s Vespa to drop in on friends unannounced. In general, I consider myself a happy person, and it was easy for me to coast along happily in San Francisco. But I spent a lot of time worrying about things that I now find tiresome to consider—what to wear, how to eat, how to live. On the road, the lack of options can sometimes feel oppressive. But I now think that only when our lives truly shrink can our world expand.
This past month, we have been covering a lot more road than usual, logging on many hours of driving a day in our bid to get to Buenos Aires by Christmas. This past Sunday, we had another one of those days where I wondered what the hell I was doing with my life. We spent a night in sweltering heat, the dog threw up all over our bedding, the bathrooms in the campground were locked, and when we tried to leave, the van protested with a horrific (new!) noise that told us we weren’t going anywhere. We spent hours in the almost 100-degree heat looking for a mechanic, a hotel, and a parking garage—fairly impossible tasks for a Sunday, when nearly everything is closed. But by noon we had things more or less sorted out, and were ready to enjoy the rest of the day—enclosed in air-conditioning after a hot shower.
I love the van. I love waking up in beautiful places. I love parking and sleeping for free in front of fancy hotels. I love pulling off the road and having lunch in our own mobile living room. But usually, the best thing about living in a van is getting out of the van. It’s nice to get out.