Written By Hayden Carlyon
Published by The Otago Daily Times New Zealand.
One 1995 Honda Accord, one kiwi (that would be me), a Brazilian and half a Lithuanian. Eighteen weeks on the road, 15 countries and over 32,000km. The perfect recipe for an incredible adventure.
The first leg of a 32,000 kilometer drive from Austin Texas USA to Argentina.
Have you ever been traveling along a highway and wanted to just keep on driving and see where the road took you? To leave all your troubles behind and watch as they shrink into a tiny black dot in your rear-view mirror? I desperately wanted a real travel experience, a palpable adventure in which I could lose myself.
It was the summer of 2005 and I was passing through Austin, Texas, when I met Alex, a quiet, unassuming 29-year-old computer programmer from Brazil. He had just moved to Texas and was planning on working in Austin for a year or two to save some money before heading back home.
We quickly became good friends and it wasn’t long before we started discussing the possibility of driving to South America. We both desperately needed to get some money together but after a few weeks of throwing the idea around we decided to do the trip. I left Texas not long after but we made a promise to meet back in Austin in the summer of 2007 and drive to Brazil. I had just finished an arduous year of teaching at what had become one of South Korea’s most notorious English conversation schools.
With my dwindling bank account now replenished and a year of bureaucratic chaos and small company politics finally behind me I was back in Austin, Texas, as promised. The plan was simple; buy a cheap, gas friendly car, sell everything we owned and hit the road. First stop, Monterrey in the north east of Mexico.
But before we had even put a single mile on the clock we hit our first hitch, and it was a big one. In the 11th hour Alex’s application for a visa to Mexico had been rejected. It was two days before our departure date and the wheels were beginning to fall off before we even started.
The adventure that I had been dreaming about for the past two years had just been moved up to a whole new level. I would now have to drive through Mexico by myself and meet Alex in Guatemala two weeks later. With a Spanish speaking arsenal that consisted of “can I have a beer”, “can I have a cigarette” and “where is the bathroom”, I would have to say that I was a little apprehensive about taking the plunge and driving 3000 miles across Mexico by myself.
Early on Sunday the 21st of October 2007 I dropped Alex off at the airport in Austin and he flew direct to Guatemala City. I was to take the long way and head south to the Mexican border. By 10:00am the following morning I was making good time as I raced south through the Mexican desert on the heavily overpriced private toll roads. With the first nerve racking but uneventful border crossing behind me I was ahead of schedule and well on my way to Durango 500 miles south of the US border.
I had been wandering around the world trying to cure an impractical, insatiable addiction to travel since I left New Zealand in June 2000 at the age of 23. As free as my previous travel experiences had made me feel, it was nothing compared to this. I had been driving for less than a week and I was already falling in love with the whole idea of life on the road.
The freedom of being on my own, out on the open road was palpable and being able to experience it all in the comfort of my own car made it taste even sweeter. With the windows down, sunroof open, cigarette in hand and my iPod shuffling through an eclectic mix of my favorite tunes, I was in heaven. Cruising through the ever changing Mexican countryside and along the picturesque palm-fringed coastline, free to stop when ever and where ever I wanted. With perfect golden sand beaches, beautiful weather and mouth watering food, the only thing I was missing was having someone to share the experience with.
By the week’s end I had already made it to Puerto Vallarta 1200 miles down the pacific coast. And as luck would have it I met Renata, a young, adventurous and slightly naive Lithuanian traveler who was staying at the same hotel. Within an hour, armed with my New Zealand accent and small town charm, I had convinced her to give up her Spanish lessons and Salsa classes and drive to Guatemala with me. She could practice her Spanish on the road but the salsa lessons would have to wait until she returned safely to Puerto Vallarta in a few weeks as promised.
It was perfect, she would get to see the “real” Mexico and travel in style (Honda accords are a luxury car in Mexico and Lithuania) and I wouldn’t have to cross the most notorious border in Central America by myself. We took our time to enjoy the carnivals and end of year celebrations that were in full swing as we slowly wound our way down the coast.
I was unlucky enough to see my first cock fight as we celebrated the day of the dead (November 2nd) in style, at a local fair in rustic little beachside town just outside the chaotic city of Acapulco. Five of the angriest looking roosters I have ever seen were in the middle of a four meter square wooden pen, barely held back by the knotted strings around their necks. As the birds were released by their trainers, the hundred-strong crowd of drunk Mexican men cheered with delight, shaking handfuls of pesos in the air as they rooted for their bird. We watched the voracious roosters peck at each other until they passed out from exhaustion and the triumphant winner sat victoriously on the head of one of the loser’s.
Before we knew it a week had flown by and we were at the dreaded Guatemalan border. I had heard from other travelers that it was a nightmare to cross, with mountains of paperwork, bureaucratic red tape and bribes to pay. As we drove past a row of overloaded transportation trucks that were lined up waiting to cross the border, people started coming out of nowhere and it wasn’t long before our car was surrounded. The Texas license plates stood out like a sore toe and within seconds the hoards of local money changers and craft sales people pounced on us like a pack of hungry vultures.
The Texas license plates stood out like a sore toe and within seconds the hoards of local money changers and craft sales people pounced on us like a pack of hungry vultures. Sticking their hands in the windows and yelling in broken English, fighting over each other to be the first to make a sale and help the Gringo’s part with some of their hard earned cash. With 25 people attached to the car, I drove through the rest of the crowd and negotiated my way across to the immigration office, trying my best not to run anyone over.
To my surprise it ended up being a relatively painless process and although there were plenty of forms to fill out and a lot of running around to do, we managed to make it through in less than two hours. It would turn out that the border crossing was going to be the easy part, it was the road on the other side that would be pose the biggest threat.
As soon as we crossed into Guatemala the roads rapidly began to deteriorate. The incredibly steep, winding roads were riddled with unavoidable pot holes and teeth chattering asphalt. With overloaded trucks and buses barreling around the corners, people, dogs, chickens and road works to avoid, it was an absolute nightmare. By the time we had made it to the top of the mountain range that lined the Guatemala/Mexico border the car was not in good shape. The temperature gauge was going through the roof and we couldn’t drive more than three kilometers without the radiator spewing out boiling water all over the road.
We were in the middle of nowhere in the Guatemalan mountains with a car close to death. My stomach sank as I felt my world crumbling down around me. This wasn’t how it was meant to be. This wasn’t how I had pictured my great adventure. It couldn’t end now. We had barely made it to the second country. In a state of semi-controlled panic I gradually nursed the car to Xela, a small city one hour outside of the capital. Stopping about every five kilometers or so to let the engine cool down and refill the radiator with water borrowed from the local roadside farms. I would like to say that I was very cool, calm and collected during the whole experience but I wasn’t, not even close.
By the time we finally limped into Xela and tracked Alex down, I was a stressed-out mess. Every light on the instrument panel was blinking, making the inside of the car look like a cheap, shiny Christmas tree, the speedometer had stopped working and she was losing power with every kilometer. What should have been an easy three hour drive had ended up being a pain staking nine hour ordeal. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to finally make it to Xela and put an end to what had been one of the most stressful days of my life.
We went straight to a local bar for a much needed beer and a few strong shots of tequila. As the alcohol slowly started to make its way through my veins and my nerves and anxiety from the day’s events started to melt away, Alex put my stories from Mexico to shame as he described his eventful past two weeks. While I was enjoying a comparatively relaxing drive across Mexico with my new Lithuanian companion he was doing it the hard way, backpacking alone around Guatemala, getting a taste of the poorest country in Central America.
One night in Guatemala City while Alex was eating dinner, a man snuck into the restaurant and snatched a fish head off his plate, sucked the eyeballs out of it, threw it back on the table and ran away. Alex decided to leave the capital the next day. While on a bus bound for Xela, he was passing through a small town and heard what sounded like a gunshot. He looked out the bus window and saw a man executed in cold blood. He was shot in the chest 4 times and died there in the streets in front of hundreds of people.
We spent a few hours swapping stories and enjoying the local beer before calling it a night. Tomorrow was going to be an important day. We would find out if the problem with the car was terminal, or if it was something that could be repaired there in Guatemala? With only 3000 miles down and another 17,000 miles left to go we had a long road ahead of us. I just hoped that after all that we had gone through the trip wouldn’t end prematurely.