chasing dreams

 photo credit: Taya Photography

photo credit: Taya Photography

A surf trip, driving overland, through Central America had been my dream for as long as I can remember. Probably since I started surfing, just after I moved to Costa Rica – now going on thirteen years ago. I had the whole thing planned. I’d buy a car in California, find a dog to keep me company, and hit the open road on my own, chasing those sweet southern swells to my insatiable soul-surfing heart’s content, camping on the beach along the way, and staying gone as long as I wanted – or at least until I ran out of cash. Whichever came first. I was 20 years old, hell-bent on hedonistic freedom, single as the day I was born and crazy enough to actually do it. 

But as life would have it, more than a decade would pass before the stars aligned and all the pieces fell into place. And in the process, plans changed a little to fit my current life circumstances. There would be no dog. Pedro, my Venezuelan surfer-babe boyfriend would be sitting shotgun as surf-partner-in-crime, personal security, self-appointed DJ and co-pilot with a mind for engine mechanics. We’d make the trip backwards, from Costa Rica north to California. In our badass converted 2004 Dodge Sprinter van, complete with solar panels, a big comfy mattress, and all the camping gear we would need. And as for staying gone as long as I wanted? Well, with real-life commitments of a thirty-something surfer girl on the hustle to make ends meet while living dreams of my own design, a month would have to do.

Mercury went retrograde the morning we left home, notoriously a time when travel plans go awry, communication gets wonky, and all the little details get mixed up into chaos and confusion – not exactly the most auspicious moment to be embarking on a month-long surf adventure across countries that make moms everywhere lose sleep when their daughters get up the guts and go. But after hosting our first surf, yoga and writing retreat, it was the only window of time we had if living our van-life journey were to actually happen. So despite the pull of the planets, we headed north to the Nicaraguan border, hope in our hearts and a little extra bribe money in our pockets. 

Suffice it to say, Mercury had a whole bag of tricks up her sleeve, not to mention a few homegrown obstacles of our own. The first 24 hours of our trip went a little like this: Fortunately, we bribed our way through customs with a faulty van title and an expired permit. Unfortunately, my trusty co-pilot hadn’t gotten his visa sorted in time, and the border agents had no mercy on his Venezuelan passport, turning him right around on the next bus to San Jose. They quite liked the looks of me, though, and made up some excuse for me to stay the night, alone in the van, in the otherwise empty parking lot at the customs building on the Nicaragua side of the border. 

‘You’ll be safe here,’ the immigration cop instructed me to park near the creepy-looking security guard in a particularly sketchy, unlit section of the lot around midnight, out of earshot of the customs office. ‘Yeah fucking right I’m sleeping there next to that dude,’ I told myself, pulling the van right up beneath the big flood lights directly in front of the building, instead. My tears made no mountains move that night, and I slept like a three-week-old baby with colic, the biggest knife I could find tucked gently beneath my pillow.

So plans changed, quite dramatically. There would be no personal security guard, no co-pilot, no surf-partner-in-crime, no Venezuelan babe boyfriend for the next 72 hours as I traveled northward through Nicaragua, Honduras and half of El Salvador, alone. Fear in my guts, resolve in my bones, I embraced the adventure, deciding to trust in the uncertain seas of the universe to provide, as she always does. With Ganesha – the divine arbiter of obstacles – sitting pretty on the dash, I made some vital phone calls to some of my badass boss-babe surf sisters sprinkled serendipitously in both north and south Nicaragua. Blessed by their generosity, fold-out futons, strawberry donuts and safe parking lots, I found space to rest my head, sisters to hold my hand, and epic Nicaraguan off-shores at the tail-end of an early-season south swell. Among perfectly peaky waves and inspiring surfing women, grateful became too small a word. 

 photo credit: Taya Photography

photo credit: Taya Photography

‘Viajas sola?’ They asked me at all three borders I crossed on the third day of my Central American journey northward. They asked me at gas stations when they saw no man in sight as I stepped out to pee. They asked me at 17 military check-points in three countries where well-armed men in uniform stepped filthy boots up into the van to search for contraband, look at my legs, ask for my phone number, and safeguard against other serious threats to national security.  

‘Are you traveling alone?’ Yes. For the hundredth time, I am a woman crossing the scariest countries in Central America, in the van, alone. It was a feat quite uncommon, apparently. And understandably so in places like Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, where sexual assault, domestic violence and rape statistics are staggering. For their own safety, women in those countries rarely traveled alone.

And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. The places I chose to journey didn’t exactly conjure images of rainbows and butterflies in a woman’s self-protective imaginary. But I went anyway, trusting in my intuition, driving only during the day, and wrapping the van in a glowing, impenetrable bubble of light like my mom taught me to do when I was five. I listened to a lot of Bob Marley, singing along a little louder when my nerves kicked up. ‘Every little thing, is gonna be alright…’

‘I’m fine,’ I’d tell myself out loud each time I neared an armed checkpoint. ‘I’m doing great. I’m almost there. The van is safe. I am safe.’ Some days, affirmations are more like Prozac than prayer.

You can’t prepare yourself for the ways you’ll respond when things get really scary. Like when you’re 15 kilometers from the Honduras-El Salvador border and a gang of ten men dressed as goblins with Halloween masks are running toward you in a horizontal line, blocking the road, and you’re the only vehicle in sight. There aren’t how-to books or DIY videos on YouTube explaining what to do when your stomach’s in your mouth and your heart’s too loud for your mind to concentrate on anything other than ‘What the Fuck?!’ So, luckily, your survival instincts kick in to spite your panic attack and you slow the van to a stop, throw it in reverse and wait a second to see what happens. And when a motorbike drives up behind you, waving you along like no big deal, you’re not sure if he’s part of the heist or if this is all some sick sort of joke in a place where few foreign travelers dare to tread. You aren’t certain what part of your body informs your arm to shift the van back into drive and your foot to press slowly on the accelerator. And all you have is your trust in the open road to deliver exactly what you need, and a prayer for human decency to prevail over evil. So you face your moment with hope and fear, and as the goblin-men approach and surround the van, telling you not to be scared, removing their masks to calm your nerves and explain that they’re simply collecting coins as a fundraiser for their community, you finally exhale, find a smile and laugh from deep in your belly at the way fear and stories and reality conspired in your mind to create the scariest moment of your Central American dream surf trip. You shake your head, take a deep breath, offer a coin or two to the cause and continue along your way, a little more thankful in your skin.

Entering El Salvador felt like a breath of fresh air, and finding El Cuco in the midst of Semana Santa – Latin America’s holy week in the lead-up to Easter, when everyone and their moms hit the beach for all-day parties and general debauchery – was a colorful welcome to a vibrant beach town I had visited twice before. I changed into my shorts to stand the mid-afternoon heat, scarfed a few pupusas and drove the windy, bumpy road to Las Flores, eastern El Salvador’s jewel of a righthand pointbreak, slowly transitioning into the country’s next hotspot now on every surfer’s Salvadoran itinerary. Despite the country’s heavy history of violent civil wars and the powerful omnipresence of gangs centered around urban areas, the eastern countryside feels mellow, and the locals reassure you that tourist aren’t targets for violent crime. They also suggest you keep your things locked up safe in the low-rise cement, bunker-like cabinas with bars on the windows, and that you never walk the beach after sunset. Further conversations reveal how local people fought for their lives as farmers unwilling to give up their lands and livelihoods to government armed forces who would have otherwise exterminated the villages they call family and appropriated the lands they call home. For twelve years, thick blood was spilled into the muddy red earth among cornfields and palm trees, leaving the bones of civil war skeletons buried in the sands we squish between our toes as we skip out into the surf. And now, they take any means necessary to make sure the gangs aren’t getting in to threaten their hard-won peace. Some histories are not so soon forgotten.

While the locals are generally friendly and welcoming, there’s a tangible, understandable heaviness in the air, and a lot of male eyes on your skin as you walk the earth as woman. The shorts I wear at home have no place in El Salvador, unless I’m willing to stomach the incessant stares right up on in there. That one, I unfortunately learned the hard way. The pussy-peepers, I call them, are ruthless in their resolve, infiltrating the soul-space of even the most tenacious feminists among us. With little recourse, I fear, in a place where violence against women is so regular, to the tune of 10 reported cases of rape or sexual assault per day, and 500+ women murdered per year. While we can’t leave our vaginas in the hotel room, we can face our vulnerabilities with a sense of dignity, keeping our heads held high despite the misogyny of machista culture, as we continue to surf the waves of the world, reclaiming our space in the sea, while knowing that sometimes standing up for ourselves isn’t safe, and choosing the physical integrity of our bodies is not a defeat. Some days, our silence is our greatest source of power. And then, when it’s safe enough for us to come out, we share our stories.

When I arrived to Las Flores, we were between swells and the waves had fallen flat, with new south swell slated for later in the week. Well after midnight, Pedro climbed into the van after a late flight and a long taxi ride. Finally reunited after a dramatic few days apart, we slept in and savored a slow morning, argued about the reasons why he didn’t sort his Nicaraguan visa on time, checked the surf to no avail, and decided to get moving north to Guatemala. We’d make tracks to catch the swell in southern Mexico. After all, we only had three weeks left to make it all the way up to L.A.

The next morning an armed guard tapped the butt of his rifle on our window, asking us kindly to move the van so a cement truck could pass through the gates of the drive-thru zoo where we had stopped for a few hour’s sleep halfway across Guatemala. Sleep in our eyes, we obliged and carried on. As the hours drifted with the reggae tunes of our road trip soundtrack, I reflected on the resentment in the bittersweet sense of gratitude I felt for my man’s presence by my side. The injustice of all the things I could do and all the places I could go now, simply because I was no longer a woman travelling alone. Things like crossing the border without ten people telling me to be careful when they saw I was by myself. Things like sleeping along the highway outside the zoo in Guatemala with an armed security guard outside my window. Things like remaining somewhat calm at the military checkpoints when uniformed soldiers with huge automatic weapons climbed into the van. The Western feminist in me cannot fucking stand the fact that my freedom is still in so many ways contingent on the attitudes and actions of men – be they perpetrators, predators, partners or protectors. I write and fight and pray for the day that women everywhere can walk the world without changing our behavior in any way, shape or form to accommodate the presence of men in any of their manifestations.

And so it is.

surf nica

After hours in Semana Santa traffic along the memorably bad, two-lane roads of the Pan-American Highway, and longer hours begging and pleading with the Mexican customs agents to accept our less-than adequate vehicle documents, we finally made it to Tapachula – a bustling Mexican border city just a few miles from the beach, where hotels were packed and the streets were abuzz with holiday crowds eager for cheap thrills and inhibition gone wild. We camped in the parking lot of a well-guarded hotel and showered in the sink of the shared lobby bathroom.

Street tacos never tasted so good.

As the swell began filling in, we traversed Chiapas and made our way into Oaxaca, mainland Mexico’s surfing mecca. We drove through the desert salt-lands of Salina Cruz, where visiting surfers are required to hire a local surf guide to access the community-managed waves. We parked the van to take a look before a salty local vibed us the wrong way and we decided to hit the road rather than pay to play. As a graduate student of sustainable surf tourism, I admire local communities for taking their surf-related development realities into their own hands and determining the type of tourism they’re willing to accept in their home towns. It sure beats the rampant over-development we’ve grown accustomed to in Costa Rica. That said, the aloha spirit in Salina Cruz, where foreign access is determined by a dollar amount, fell flat on our eager free-loving surfing souls, and the reality of their community-led surf management plan felt spinier than the needles on the cactus lining the dirt road along the sand. As we headed north to Barra de la Cruz, I thought a lot about how the capitalist concept of waves as resources for growing community economies is taking us further from sustainability, and deeper into the commodification of the Earth, perpetuating the status quo wealth dynamics of access to surf breaks, privileging elite access over South-South solidarity, even if communities are compensated in the process. While Salina Cruz may be a start to finding alternatives to development and circumventing settler colonialism in surfing destinations, I believe surfers and local communities can do a lot better where sustainable surfing tourism is concerned.

Luckily, Barra de la Cruz was just around the corner, welcoming us with open arms and chest-high waves on a dropping tide before sunset at the cooperative-run white-sand beach managed by the community. We watched the sun dip behind the iconic boulders and cactus-covered cliffs, as the full moon rose out of the horizon above the sea. We chatted to an Australian couple who had been traveling to Barra to surf every season for the past 18 years, well before Rip Curl’s infamous Pro Search Somewhere in Mexico contest that put the spot on the map when it was still an unexploited wave with no international name. We weren’t allowed to park the van or camp at the beach, so we found a family-run inn with space between the palm trees and paid a few bucks for access to the shared kitchen and bathroom. Our morning surf was as crowded as it gets, but locals were friendly and beginners stayed mostly down the line. I slid into a bunch of punchy, slow-rolling beauties, connecting turns all the way in towards the shore. After days of travel, all the uncertainties at Central American borders and strange homes for sleepless nights, the sea was the exhale I could finally settle into, digging my fins into the real start of the surf trip I had dreamed of for more than a decade. We had made it to Mexico.

It was Good Friday, the busiest beach day in all of Latin America, and the local surfers celebrated by hosting a contest at the point. While signing up for the girls’ heat would have meant surfing with only 2 other women out for a 20-minute wave fest at one Oaxaca’s most sought-after point breaks, paying to surf and perform for a crowd have never been quite my cup of tea. In fact, the sportization of surfing and surf contest culture makes me a little sick to my stomach, to be honest. Staying true to my soul-surfing principles, we waited out the contest and crawled up high on the smooth carved rocks in the late afternoon to watch the wind-blown waves and a few die-hard surfers willing to try their luck in mediocre conditions as the sky turned to pink pastels and periwinkle, slowly revealing the white-yellow glow of that full-hearted Mexican moon.

At night we ventured out for fish tacos, sipped Coronas to the crooning rancheras blaring to the beat of the neon lights from the karaoke machine in the corner, and fell absolutely in love with all things Mexico. Quite unlike my spring break days with the girls in Cabo San Lucas when I was 18 and more than borderline alcoholic, that Corona was the only drink I’d have in five months and counting. I imagine this surf trip would have looked a hell of a lot different had I actually done it twelve years ago, at the height of my hedonistic party all night, wanna-be surfer girl lifestyle, and not now, as I was nearing 33 and living nearly 100% substance-free.

‘Once you start feeling right at home,’ I remember telling a girlfriend while we were traveling somewhere, someday in the blurry history of my adventure-worn memory. ‘That’s when you know it’s time to go.’

vanlife driving

We left Barra wishing for bigger waves, promising to return one day and stay for a more serious swell in a less crowded season. Everything about that place captivated my senses – the wave, the cactus above the rocks, the friendly faces and delicious fish tacos. The small-town feel where locals still ran the show and things felt real. Life in the van, a feeling of safety and solidarity in a place where other women traveled and surfed and walked at least a little bit free. I could have stayed a lifetime.

As the swell continued to grow and we journeyed on, we found ourselves smack-dab in the middle of Puerto Escondido for the busiest party weekend of the season, when half of Mexico City was at the beach, drinking and dropping and rolling and screaming for their own definition of fancy-free debauchery. We found a relatively quiet alley between a couple of hippy vans at the surfy-chic south end of town, well-populated by foreign surfers and hipster fashionistas thirsty for the surf lifestyle aesthetic on offer there at La Punta. There was human shit collecting flies in the street where we stood eating watermelon on a hot and sticky afternoon. And dog shit literally everywhere we tried to park the van. Thousands and thousands of people along a three-mile stretch of sand. It was surf city at the sea on one of the year’s most crowded days, and I was having absolutely none of it. If it was just me, I would have been gone. Pedro, however, was dying to surf the big barreling beach break at Playa Zicatela that haunted the dreams of his entire life’s fantasy. I set a 3-day limit – tops – in a place I couldn’t stomach longer than three seconds. Ah, the things we do for love. Ain’t it sweet?

By the grace of god, Pedro's childhood friend from the old days was a badass surfer chick living just north of Zicatela. She took us under her wing for two days on a secluded neighborhood road where the van was safe and I could feel a little more at home – away from the overcrowded beaches and all that shit in the streets. I spent my mornings writing and taking pictures of my man getting barreled in the waves he had dreamed about for decades. By Monday, the holiday hordes had retreated back into the city and the beach once again became a place of solace and beauty, as I’ve always known it to be. As I watched myself in the role of photographer and surfer’s girlfriend, quite content to not be surfing those heavy waves – while admittedly not quite as content thinking about other more friendly waves I could be surfing in the meantime, or non-surfy places I might otherwise be exploring – I wondered how much of myself is healthy to sacrifice in order to support and contribute to my partner’s dreams. Some? Half? None? And at what cost to the integrity of my own lifelong goals – or were those even relevant anymore? Is it now only ‘our dreams’ and ‘our goals’ that matter? Or was this whole dream trip with the man of my dreams dream enough to hold it all? Was I asking for too much?

The next day we traded the hustle-bustle of Puerto Escondido for Chacahua, an off-the-beaten path sort of spot deep in a national park. We parked the van at the end of the road, between a rocky cliff and the river mouth jetty, where a few thatched roof huts lined the beach. On the dropping tide, we’d paddle across the river and beyond the adjacent jetty, as the ocean drew us out perfectly toward the peak. The waves were a few feet overhead, with smooth long lines ending well into the bay. It never got hollow enough to barrel, but we were content to have found a peaceful place where the palm trees blew offshore with the gentle winds nearly all day, crowds were mellow and we could set up camp, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner right there beside the cliff.

In the late afternoon, the sun set golden fire beyond the grass-thatched huts and tall palm trees, leaves rustling toward the sea, as we surfed a fresh swell gazing out to the Eastern horizon, a rare view along the American Pacific. After endless hours in the sea, we bathed one another with a bucket of borrowed water and a hollowed-out half of a coconut – our private birdbath beside the river. We watched the waning moon rise ceremoniously, glowing stoic between the cloud lines among an entire universe of stars. Our van-life neighbors, European and South American hippy-hearted souls, sang songs and played music in the early evening, with no other sounds in sight. We slept peacefully to the steady hum of the sea and made quiet love at sunrise as the waves thunder-crashed against the rocky headland. There in the van in a strange and beautiful land at the edge of the earth, we were more at home than we had been in weeks.

vangirl3

Pedro got food poisoning from some old shrimp in Maldonado. We pampered ourselves with a hot shower and a night on the 16th floor overlooking the ocean in Acapulco. I felt like the kingpin’s mistress in some 1980s cartel scene, and worried that our AirBnB might have been a front for a human trafficking racket, kidnappers about to jump out of the elevator and disappear us from life as we knew it. We watched dozens of armored vehicles drive down the strip along the beachfront boardwalk, filled with well-armed Federales in full riot gear. We ate chile relleno and chicken enchiladas and sipped sweet jamaica tea. Our taxi driver told us that foreign tourism had dropped 90 percent in Acapulco in the last 5 years. In what was once one of Mexico’s most sought-after tourist destinations, I realized I hadn’t seen another gringa since we got there. I pictured thousands of hotel rooms empty, while barefoot children tried their luck selling us chicle and shell necklaces, to little avail, at our table in the restaurant. While scary-by-choice for those of us surf-inspired visitors willing to brave the risks of all things Mexico, the locals were quick to remind us that the real danger was among their own people, as the cartels infiltrated communities with little regard for life, while the police and military often complicated things even further. In all my years of travel, I had never seen a country with more military presence than this trip to Mexico.

Nexpa was our next stop, a surfy van-life safe haven where we camped by the river and hung the hammock between the palm trees. There was a concrete platform beside the van where I practiced yoga in the golden light of late afternoon. We watched the local kids on the skate ramp while we slurped on frozen fruit juice paletas from the mini-market. Young children played in the river mouth and I was happy the crocodiles didn’t eat them. The swell picked up the second day and we had a fun morning session, but the wave never quite lined up like it should. I wrote a poem about getting sick from eating too much cheese, and wished we had months to spend in this idyllic surf paradise, with only a few restaurants and cabinas lining the beach, and van life neighbors whose stories and sensibilities paralleled our own mellow melodramas in search of warm sunshine and peeling offshore waves.

En route to our final surf spot in Mexico, with a week left before our flight out of L.A., we got held up in La Ticla, where indigenous communities had set a three-day road block, demanding justice for their people when the government had heeded them no mind following the violent death of a local woman. What would eventually be a victory for the communities meant long hours waiting for safe passage for us. Our gas tank on empty with the indicator light on for miles, and the road block obstructing the only gas station in a 100-mile radius, our best option was to park the van along a quiet stretch of beach where we laid low and waited out the protest. Luckily, we scored powerful head-high waves, shared some killer fish tacos with friends who just happened to be passing through, and learned about La Ticla’s unique surf tourism management model, where foreigners cannot live, own land, work, or run businesses. The coastal lands at La Ticla are designated indigenous reservation with restaurants, cabinas, surfboard rentals and shops owned and run by members of the local community. Men sold hammocks and blankets and rented seaside palapas for shade to visitors by the hour. Women walked with fresh corn tamales and homemade banana bread for sale. I reveled in knowing that La Ticla could be one of the few places on Earth where surf tourism didn’t mean selling out, and where wave-hungry foreigners could never colonize coastal lands for longer than a few weeks at a time.

When the road block lifted in the late afternoon, we shared in the celebration of the local communities’ small but certain victory. We’ll never know the ins and outs of the dark side of that story, but we do know that the steadfast resolve in their three-day road block was a successful step toward justice for their people. And if the cost to us was a longer than anticipated stay on the native lands of coastal Michoacan, fish tacos with friends, a few well-earned waves, and a bit of stress with the worry we’d run out of gas, I am proud to have been a passive part of that parade of people willing to speak truth to power, even if I was only a tiny drop in the ocean of their hard-won history in the making. 

pascuales

We made it to the gas station, victorious in our own right, and journeyed on toward our next and final surf stop in Mexico before making the long trek to the border. Pedro's barreling birthday beach break was a not-so-secret spot that shall still however remain unnamed, where we parked the van in the graveled parking lot of a beachfront restaurant run by hospitable cross-dressers with a habit for late-night dance parties, shaking their groove thing right down to their skivvies. I settled into my role as surf photographer with a little more joy this time, soaking in the crisp mornings and those first rays of sunlight warming the skin on my shoulders and the sand beneath my sarong. It was barrels for breakfast, van-made avocado tacos for lunch and afternoons spent organizing ourselves for the long trip ahead. As we waited out the swell that never delivered as we hoped it would, I watched my man in his element, loving every second of the heavy waves I was happy to have seen and content not to surf. While I carried the history of my formative beach break girl in my self-compassionate heart, that addictive part of my surfing story was slowly transitioning into the past, as I found myself no longer finding joy in that sort of suffering for my waves.

I believe there’s a shift that happens, sooner or later, in the life of every wild, wanderlust woman. Where the sorts of adventures we seek transition from high-adrenaline, danger around every curve, needing to taste the threat of death in order to feel alive kind of experiences, to the more everyday adventures, where we play around the edges of our comfort zone, yet no longer find fun in the hassles of extremely consequential risks gone wrong. Maybe it’s maternal-instinctual. Maybe our adrenals are so shot that we literally can’t take anymore. Maybe it’s just a part of growing up. Whatever the cause, it comes with a practiced maturity in knowing our own limits, even if only because we’ve gone a little too far a few too many times. And it comes with integrating life’s many lessons, even if we’re meant to learn them the hard way, sometimes. And as surfers, I believe that shift is self-definitive of who we are as women walking the world, chasing the waves that bring us joy and lead us on dream-inspired journeys we couldn’t plan for if we tried, empowering us to step up and into our sturdy foundation of self-love and creative expression as we wander, wise enough now to know the difference between dreams and just plain dumb.

With 2700 kilometers to travel overland in the van and five days ahead of us to make our flight out of L.A., we had timed it perfectly to drive eight-hour days and never after sunset, stop for a night each in Mazatlan and Guaymas, cross the border in Nogales, register the van in my name in my home town of Tucson, Arizona, stay a night there among my old stomping ground with my long lost high school friend and her beautiful family, head to San Diego for a sunset surf and a leisurely hang with forever friends, before finding ourselves with time to spare before our flight in my other former home near the Farm School that held my three year-old memories in Woodland Hills, where we’d leave the van for safe keeping for a few months as we chased new dreams and different waves across the seas.

We were woman and man with our badass van and a failproof plan.

But good ole’ Ganesh and the mystery of Mercury – soon to be stationing direct – had other plans in store for our die-hard adventurer souls. Unfortunately, less than 300 kilometers on the road, our alternator died, and we were stranded on a Saturday afternoon at the gas station just off the highway near Tequila, Jalisco. Fortunately, some guys with a bus jumped our battery and gave us enough of a charge to travel a kilometer or so into the closest town of Magdalena, where we found an electrical mechanic who helped us make it to his shop. Unfortunately, we needed a whole new alternator, it was already late in the day on Saturday, no one in town worked on Sunday, and the new part we needed wouldn’t get there until Monday, which meant we would lose three entire travel days en route to our final destination. Fortunately, we were in a safe part of town parked in front of the family-run mechanic shop, strategically located less than 100 meters from a mini market and clean public restrooms, and just a short walk to the central plaza in Magdalena, with the best street tacos and homemade ice cream in all the land.

Digging into our well stream of resilience, we squeezed that dilemma into dilemmonade: Pedro fixed up the van while I caught up on pending writing projects, and we packed our bags for our upcoming post-van-life travel. We entertained difficult Plan B scenarios should the part not arrive in time, which would have entailed ditching the van in Puerto Vallarta and flying north. Luckily, on Monday afternoon as promised, the mechanic found and installed the part we needed, and we were back on our way. By 9pm we found ourselves an hour from Mazatlan, where we would get a good night’s sleep, wake up early and drive as far as our weary bones would take us.

Or so we thought.

Instead, in the pitch black of night, we broke down – again – on a narrow bridge of the two-lane highway outside Rosario de Sinaloa, a place known around the world as a ruthless cartel stronghold, without a foreigner in sight. The ignition wouldn’t turn, we had no lights or emergency lights, and the giant semi trucks passed at exorbitant speeds as Pedro checked fuses and switched batteries, sweating to the incessant (and somewhat disturbing) sounds of the cows in what I imagined to be pastureland below us, and the coyotes howling in the distance. The commotion of the moment had me more scared for Pedro’s safety should a semi slam us from behind, while his Caracas upbringing had him hell-bent on getting us off that bridge and out of our precarious predicament before we became prey in the sketchiest cartel zone in the country.

As soon as I dialed 9-1-1, the police pulled up with their lights on and told us the tow truck was on its way. We were on a toll highway with free roadside assistance, just a few kilometers south of the toll station. They would bring us there, where we would sleep in the van for the night and call the mechanic to help us in the morning. The toll station was a busy scene of blinking lights, semi-trucks and only men. Pedro held my trusty sarong out the door of the van while I peed squatting on the lower step so no one would see me. We didn’t need the extra liability of all the truck drivers knowing I was the only woman in a place like that. We both slept with one eye open, awaiting the sunrise. In the morning, we watched working women of the night get picked up, and others get dropped off, one of whom carried a metal pipe in her hand, walking slowly along the highway toward Rosario. Vulnerability found new meaning in my conscience as I imagined what a life like that must be like, and how strange it was to be sharing space with women whose worlds were otherwise so far from my own.   

We found the mechanic for a quick battery switch and followed him to his shop. We met a sweet older couple with engine problems of their own in their classic white VW Bug. He was a former member of the communist party with lofty ideals and a clean pressed white button-down. She was a hippy beyond her years with a message of love and devotion as she massaged her husband’s shoulders and chatted to us about politics, love and revolutionary change. Before we knew it, the mechanic replaced the part we needed – a complication with the new alternator and the original accessories that needed an upgrade – and we were back on our way, this time for real.

We made it to Guaymas before midnight and found a hotel with hot water and clean sheets. We slept through our alarm but still breezed through the Nogales border just after noon, where the border agents had a jolly good laugh at our life in the van. Crossing the border into Arizona, overland from Mexico was an admittedly unexpected sigh of relief. I photographed the wall stretching in either direction as far as the eye could see, contemplating the costs of security, dreams and freedom among all those superficial lines drawn in the sand.

Tired in our bones. Grateful in our hearts. Under the wire and in the space of adventure where dreams became real, we arrived to L.A. the very next day, stopping for the night in Tucson and celebrating a well-earned sunset over the cliffs in San Diego – eventually coming home to our final destination and present place of departure, as wanderlust warriors living the journey of life the best and only way we know how.  

sunset cliffs