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1976: Crossing the Sahara

To cross a giant desert like the Sahara takes planning, time and some courage. The experience of driving from the familiarity of Europe to sub-Saharan Africa is otherworldly.

The ferry across the strait of Gibraltar may seem like a major step into a foreign world -where people of Muslim conviction wear long robes and head covers. Tightly built towns flaunt tall minarets with loudspeakers blasting regular calls for prayer. Still, it felt Mediterranean, close and easily accessible from Europe, and vaguely familiar.

After we skirted the lush, northern edges of Morocco and Algeria, we turned south on the Ahaggar Piste; an old caravan trail turned “highway” through the middle of the Sahara. As the road deteriorated from potholed asphalt into dirt, settlements became smaller and dryer, hiding their green gardens behind adobe walls. Before leaving town, police checkpoints urged us to drive in groups. The view of each other’s dust-clouds, whirling behind our cars, prevented us from getting lost while driving on either side of the bone-shattering main piste.

The only major dunes on our crossing were the towering pink sands that threatened to absorb the dusty town of In–Salah. Black baked gravel plains, like giant parking lots, dominated the landscape. At night, jagged mountains framed a crowded, starry sky.

There was silence…

The whistling wind – cool at night, hot during the day was the only sound we heard. The sun burnt unforgiving, even in the winter. Except for our travel companions and a rare truck, we met no people. The occasional oasis showed off a few date palms, prickly groundcovers of bitter melons, dry bushes and a surprise of brilliant songbirds.

Tamanrasset, a Touareg town in the central Ahaggar mountains was the last stop before total desolation around the Algeria-Niger border. Police demanded travelers to join up and help each other out of the many treacherous sandy spots.

Again…silence….

Gradually, people appeared. Out of nowhere, a man on a camel rushed towards us, sat down, looked at us, and left. Hours later, a small group of people walked by, waving. We passed a Fulani family, urging their long-horned cows to pull a mile of rope out of a well for a skin-full of water. Then, all of a sudden, the rattling inside the camper stopped: we hit the paved road. Everything relaxed, and we looked around with wonder. This was black Africa! Without taking our feet off the ground, we had arrived in a different world!

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1978: Breakfast at the Pushkar Camel market

A knock on our camper door awakes us. I open the door to face a sinewy, orange turbaned farmer. Through his drooping mustache he mutters “We need a pot”. He gestures to the nearby campfire where a woman covers dough balls with hot embers, under the watchful eyes of his comrades.
I look around and smile. Overnight, a beehive of technicolored people has turned yesterday’s deserted lakefront into an overcrowded campsite. The annual Pushkar Camel Market in India draws farmers from all over Rajastan. They come, dressed in their finest, to meet friends and browse the market for more finery, leatherwork and food. On the fairgrounds, camels compete to be the fastest, the strongest, or the most beautiful. Gypsies perform with music and dance, and the local nobility parades around in a dazzling show of bejeweled wealth and beauty. Throughout the town, my nose relishes the smells of onions, garlic and curries. Smoke of cooking fires adds mystery to the spectacle in the crowded streets, where holy men with painted faces and wild hair offer religious advice in exchange for a meal. Within a circle of men, a half-naked guru lays face-down, his head buried in the ground. “How can he breathe?” the audience wonders as they drop coins towards the man’s exploring hands.
The young woman takes my pot to the lake, where she digs up some mud to scour the inside of my clean pot. The gold chain of her nose ring swings back and forth, and rows of ivory bracelets click with the rhythm of her scrubbing. As she returns, her wide, brightly flowered skirt gracefully follows the motion of her walk. When she starts cooking, she keeps her red tie-dye head scarf in place with her teeth.
I turn away to tidy my bed and prepare our breakfast inside. During our second cup of coffee, there’s another knock on the door. The sinewy man outside announces to Thijs: “Breakfast is ready. Come, eat!” Surrounded by onlookers my husband willingly sits down and joins in the meal. Our new neighbors -proud of their outstanding guest- unsuccessfully try to shoo the growing crowd away.
It made us realize: we came to an attraction, and became one, ourselves.
Too bad woman in India don’t eat at the same time as the men. They are expected to wait and hope for some leftovers. I’m glad I already ate.

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Guatemala 2016

The Road Less Traveled

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The brakes are not working!”
“WHAT!?!”
The brakes are not working!” said Thijs under his breath, while he steered the truck into the high berm, straight towards a tethered, grazing pig, who rushed to the side. We came to a stop up a steep slope, inches away from a bushy bitter orange tree. The camper was teetering dangerously to one side, making it hard to walk to the back to let Kakao out the side door. Outside, a gathering of people already surrounded us, pulling out their phones to make pictures.
“Do you have your camera to take some photos?” asked Thijs, while he crawled out the truck from the driver’s side.
“No” I replied, “and I am not going back in to get it; it was already too hard to come out!”
Thijs, always the one to record sensation, pulled out his camera phone, and shot the situation from all angles. This may be a story to boast about later on.
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It all began in Huehuetenango, where we read about the many indigenous Maya tribes, living in villages in the mountains north of where we were. We learned that some of them still wore stunning traditional clothing – even the men – and that is exceptional. On the maps, we saw a road that led past several of them, connecting eventually to the crater lake Laguna Lachua, and on to the city of Copan. However, not every map connected one end of the road to the other. In the lowlands towards Laguna Lachua, some maps showed a gap. Was it going to be possible, we wondered… We checked on Google Earth, zooming in to see that there was indeed a road, even with a dividing line. We asked some local people about the road condition and were assured that that route was fine and safe. So we thought we’d give it a chance. If it was going to be rough, we’d turn back after visiting Todos Santos, the town where everyone walks around in homespun, only 50 kilometers up and away.

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The road was steep for long stretches, but the pavement was fine. We added a stop along the way to let the engine cool and enjoy the view: deep in the distance, Hueheutenago looked like salt sprinkling. The dark green mountains surrounding the town were shrouded in clouds. Not far below us, a soccer match was about to start. People emerged from hillside trails, to come and watch the game. We continued our drive to the top, where the highlands lay golden brown and pastoral. As soon as we took the turn for the road into the valley of Todos Santos, another crowd gathered for a Sunday soccer match. Here, we noticed the men wore red and white striped pants and sometimes short black felt overpants. They wore blue striped white jackets, adorned with brightly embroidered collars and cuffs. Across a shoulder, a large embroidered carrying bag could hold their necessities for the day. Some men topped off their ensemble with a blue band around their straw hat. Women showed off their multicolored woven and embroidered huipiles, conscious of matching the colors with their wrapped skirts and cardigans. Even the houses started showing their inhabitant’s urge to decorate. Multiple colors and designs decorated the eaves and Dutch doors. On top of red tiled roofs, ceramic animals kept watch over their surroundings, pointing to breathtaking views over the narrow valley, where patches of land were cultivated on steep angles, catching moisture from low hanging clouds.

A road blockade at the entry of Todos Santos forced us to drive around to the other side of town, where a steep curve stopped us. A group of local youth – cool looking with their red/white pants in low-on-the-butt fashion, helped us turn around in a tight curve, followed by a request for a “regallo”, a present. They laughed and walked away when I showed them the change of Mexican Pesos I had in my pockets. We asked a guy leaning over a balcony if we could park on an empty lot across the street. We could, no problem. He pointed to the town center: that’s where all the action was.
On Sunday, with most shops closed, there was not much to do, but most who were out there, were identically dressed; with a variation of color and weaving/embroidery technique with the women, and a missing accessory here and there with the men. We were the ones who stood out (making photographing awkward, though Thijs does not feel quite that way). At a cooperative, selling handcrafted bags and waistbands, we saw the only other couple of “Gringos”.
When we returned to our camper, the guy on the balcony started a conversation, asking if we spoke English. With his broken English and our broken Spanish, we learned about their way of life, about how proud they were of their culture, and how small their chances are to make a good living there. As a farmer, Steve told us, his average income is 40 Quetzales a day. That’s about $3 US. They live with the extended family in one house, and are able to feed themselves with what they produce. There‘s not much to spare. When asked about us and our lives, we invited Steve and his family to see the inside of our camper. Grandma, Steve’s wife, his sister-in-law as well as their children rushed downstairs. All of them crammed into our little house, where they admired our bed, the kitchen and the soft cushions. They just didn’t understand the luxury life our dog was living – inside, on the furniture?!
After a while we bid our goodbye, and drove back to the main road, where we turned left, further into the mountains.

The road looked perfect, and we soaked up the beauty of the country.

Then potholes appeared. First two or three, but soon the whole road was Swiss cheese.
As we crawled our way up, meandering from left to right to avoid the worst holes, we entered the cloud zone. The fog became so dense, it became hard to see. This was no fun, and since it was getting late, we stopped for the night at a gas station in San Juan Ixcoy.

The weather and road looked better the next morning. We drove through pine forests and small pretty villages, where everyone, after an initial stare, cracked open a broad smile and waved. But this idyll couldn’t last…the road as we knew it now turned into a bumpy, rocky trail. The camper rocked back and forth, side to side. The cups, bowls and plates rattled and rolled in the cupboards. Everything in the fridge turned sideways. This can’t last long, we thought…
We entered San Mateo Ixtatan, where a more northerly route joined our road. Surely the road would improve?

The town of San Mateo was a total surprise. Not only was it a busy little town, it had an exceptional, primitive looking church, where women in wide, heavily embroidered shirts and wide, round collars came to offer large bunches of candles by laying them flat on hot ashes in- and beside an outside fireplace. The smell of smoke and candle wax penetrated the air. Inside the church, a collective humm came from women praying. Inside, there was no great display of gold. Walls, maybe 5ft thick, and a wood barrel ceiling insulated the inside from the outside world. Hushed by the magic in the air, we sat down for a while and paid our respect.

The road did not get better. Actually, it got worse. Potholes and depressions filled with murky water. Gullies across the road exposed protruding rocks in the wrong places. The climb was steep, up and down. At this point though, we were past the halfway point. It made no sense to turn back now. Past Barillas, the road would go down into the lowlands, where, according to truck drivers coming that way, the road was perfectly paved; maybe half an hour more to go.
Indeed, within half an hour, there was pavement! Necessary pavement, considering the incredible steepness and hairpin turns up and down the mountains. Smoothly and jubilantly we rolled down, taking care not to go too fast. Until we were back on the old rocky trail… again, just where the road split in two, and where google maps said right, while the main road showed left…

Crucero de San Ramon, the hamlet around this intersection, consisted of three stores, selling mostly soft drinks and snack bags, and two restaurants that served chicken, tortillas and beans. About fifty vehicles come through here, making it a transfer station for local passengers.
“Let’s stop here for a while and let the brakes cool” said Thijs.
Indeed, the brakes smelled burnt. No problem, we could have something to drink and ask the local people which way to go. An hour later, we started down the road again. Fortunately, Thijs noticed right away that something was wrong.
“The brakes are not working” he said, as he steered the truck towards the high berm.

I woke up to the sound of a rooster’s crowing competition. It was 4:30AM and still dark. With a rattle of boards, the store beside us opened for business. As on cue, the first bus thundered down the road, announcing its arrival with a few taps on the claxon. With regular intervals, more busses and trucks stopped and left. Before the crack of dawn, the community was alive. All three stores and both restaurants were open. Passengers arrived, waited, ate and socialized, and left- by truck or by foot. When I got up and watched the sun rise above the jungle, the morning rush was over. I looked around. It felt so peaceful here. People have time- time to hang around and enjoy each other’s company. Animals are free to scavenge, graze and socialize. A rooster leads the pack of two gently whistling turkey hens. A piglet joins a dog looking for scraps. Both get hushed out the kitchen. At the store, a boy and a girl, both maybe twelve, picked up a 50kg bag of corn, divided it in two 25kg bags, and carried them away on their backs, held in place by a string and a headband. A motorcyclist stopped to get a jug-load of gasoline in his tank. A couple of women with babies in a sling, came strolling up to the store to buy some sweets for the baby and a drink for themselves. Their embroidered shirts made me stare at them. I greeted them, and they smiled. We have been so lucky our breakdown happened here.

I won’t call it an accident, because Thijs backed the truck out of the berm without a scratch. It was a breakdown, because the brakes were down. First, they were hot, so we decided to just stay for the night, and leave the next morning with cool brakes. Andres, one of the shopkeepers who’d worked in Los Angeles for a year (“good pay, but too much pressure”) showed us where we could park so, relieved, we settled in for the night.
Night time in a jungle village. The stores closed around 8PM, the restaurants earlier. The lights went down to a single bulb. Dogs kept on barking until 10. A baby cried incessantly, while a woman seemed to be telling a long story. A few stray trucks rattled by without stopping. Then all went quiet. Until the roosters started crowing and the shops opened for business.

That morning after breakfast, Thijs started up the truck and tested the brakes. The camper protested loudly every time he pushed the brakes. There was no resistance –the brakes still did not work. Andres, who owned a truck himself, came to help, but they found nothing wrong. It was time to call for a mechanic. Andres called the closest one, but he was busy. The one in Barillas, the closest town at an hour and a half away, did not pick up, even after several tries, so Thijs and Andres went for a drive. Hours later they came back; the mechanic and his assistant just ahead of them. With everything in the brake system looking fine, the head cylinder had to have a leak somewhere, and it had to be replaced and ordered from Guatemala City. Fidel, the mechanic (who’d also worked in the US for some years) could get the part by the end of next day. We agreed that was no problem: we had time, a comfortable bed and ample supplies. We could wait a day (what choice did we have?)

We spent the next day sorting photo files, and took Kakao for a walk down the road. Here we saw coffee plants covered in delicate white blossoms, and discovered that cardamom seeds grew from the base of ginger-like plants! We repaired odds and ends in the car. We watched the traffic: a pickup with cow squeezed on the back stopped for lunch at the eatery across the street; a little piglet rode on the roof of a minibus, in a crate held shut with a bungee cord. We greeted loads of colorful people loading, offloading, coming to buy a snack, or passing through. At the end of the day we heard that the part had arrived in Barillas, but though the serial number was right, it did not look like a match. But maybe Fidel could make it fit. We would hear more from him next morning.

After breakfast, Thijs decided he wanted to go to Barillas and see for himself what could be done. We walked up the hill, where a pickup truck was about to leave. For 15Quetzales; a little more than a US dollar, he could jump in the back and be off. I stayed behind to keep Kakao company, finish a really good book, and work on this blog entry. With no phone or internet connection, life goes a lot slower. By late afternoon, with my book finished and the writing done, I was getting restless. Thijs should be back by now…When I saw Andres, who’d been out working on his farm all day, I asked if he had heard from Thijs, or Fidel, the mechanic. He tried Fidel’s number, but no answer. Finally, around 6PM, Andres received a call from Thijs, who was waiting for a “Collectivo” (= small overstuffed passenger bus) to take him back, but nothing was due for the next hour or so.
Relieved that I at least knew where he was, I settled back in with a new book.

Just an hour later, Thijs surprised me at the door, with Fidel, Fidel’s father and his assistant, who had decided, instead of coming over the next day, they’d give Thijs a lift and fix the brakes that same night. Within an hour, in the dark, our brakes were fixed. It turned out that Thijs found, searching the internet in Barilla, that the break cylinder can lose pressure caused by severe rattling on bad roads, and a simple set of actions was all that was needed to get the pressure back. If that would not have worked, then we would have had to wait another week in Crusero San Ramon for the right part to arrive from the USA. And that would not have been so terrible either, because we learned to love that little 6 house town up there in the tropical Guatemala mountains!

This morning, we said goodbye to our new friends and, with one hand on the handbreak and an eye out for a safe roadside, we went on our way; another 1000ft down until flat land, and 25 minutes (for us an hour) until the paved road, which proved to be as smooth as a baby’s bottom, but still regularly interrupted by bumpy, potholed, coarse rubble road. Now we are in a real town, camping on a hotel parking lot with internet. What a memorable experience!

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Just in case you are interested in where we have been before this blog started, here are a few links to some old blog posts from my website Rieneke.com

Mexico, December 2016

Baja California, November 2016

Florida to Texas, February 2015

Incredible Florida, continued February 2015

Incredible Florida January 2015

Electric Independence January 2015

The Departure January 2015

An Afternoon in Amish Country August 2014

Memorable Mishaps in Public Transportation May 2008

Sahara, 1976

Christmas in Brazil 1977

Lunch Break On my Porch February 2011

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