Nomad Life & Expenses February 2023

Ballena Blanca at Two Brothers garage the first time we left her.

Ballena Blanca’s transmission called it quits. After over 160,000 miles, back and forth across North America, up and down crazy dirt roads, zooming along on highways, in heat, cold, and rain, we are facing the most dreaded van repair.

Here is the short version of the story…

On February 1st Ballena Blanca started making a terrible noise and lost power. A week later we took her to a garage just around the corner from our campground. The garage, named Two Brothers, confirmed that we needed a new transmission. Their price was a lot better than the Ford Dealership in Oaxaca so we wired Two Brothers the money to buy the new transmission. We thought the money would arrive that day, so we moved out of the van into a cabin at the campground and dropped the van off at the garage. The money didn’t arrive for 5 days so we had to go get the van from the garage. When the money did arrive the cabin was reserved so we had to move out. Three days later we moved back into the cabin and dropped the van off at the garage. The garage received the wrong part so the repair was delayed. Then we thought the van was fixed but there was something wrong with the part they installed. The transmission had a guarantee so the garage sent it back to where they bought it while it was still installed in the van – our van disappeared from the garage. They said it would be fixed by March 8th but it wasn’t. As I type this we don’t know where the van is or when it will be repaired.

And here is the long version…

  • February 1, Wednesday. We were lucky to be driving down a nice wide road with a nice wide shoulder when Ballena Blanca started making a horrible noise, her RPMs shot up and she lost power. We were on the way to visit some ruins about an hour’s drive from Oaxaca with our friends, The Third Street Thugs, who were staying in an Airbnb in Oaxaca. As we pulled over to the side of the road, Greg immediately suspected that it was the transmission. He and one of our friends opened the hood of the van and looked at the engine while I started to try and figure out what to do. Our Mexican car insurance comes with roadside assistance. I pulled out the packet. There were 800 numbers to call and unlike when we had our accident last month, there was no disclaimer saying the numbers needed to be called with a Mexican phone. But if I did get through and found someone I could communicate with, where would I tell them to take it? First, we needed to find a mechanic. I searched on Google Maps for a garage near where we were staying in El Tule. I looked on iOverlander for possibilities. I found a place called Two Brothers (no translation, their name is in English) right around the corner from the campground. They had good reviews on both iOverland and Google Maps. They had a Whatsapp number. I texted them in Spanish. They got back to me right away. After giving them all the details about the van, I asked if we could bring it in that morning. They said that they were booked (for a week) until the next Wednesday. So, the question remained, where were we going to have the van towed? And how were our friends going to get back to Oaxaca? Greg thought that he might be able to drive the van in manual. He backed up on the shoulder and drove forward a little bit. It worked. We turned Ballena Blanca around and drove slowly 6 miles back to the campground.
  • February 8, Wednesday. We took that van to Two Brothers and left it all day for a diagnosis. Yes, we need a new transmission. Later that day they sent us a Whatsapp text with the estimate, $38,000 pesos for the new transmission with a 6-month guarantee, $1620 pesos for the transmission oil, and $2,800 pesos for the installation. In total about $2300 US at the current exchange rate. They didn’t accept credit cards and they needed the money for the cost of the new transmission before they could start. By then we had been talking with another couple, Silvia and Mike, who had been at the campground for the last 3 months trying to get a problem with their rig fixed. They had had a rebuilt transmission installed for around $1000 US. Silvia was telling us that she thought that the price Two Brothers was quoting us was too much and convinced us we needed a second opinion.
The cute little town of El Tule where the campground is located.
  • February 9, Thursday. First thing in the morning Greg got on the website of the Ford Dealership in Oaxaca and sent a request asking what the price of a new transmission would be. When we didn’t hear back from them at the end of that day we decided it would be easier to just go to the dealership and ask in person. Our thought was if it wasn’t that much more expensive than the local garage we’d take the van there where we’d be able to pay with a credit card after the job was finished.
  • February 10, Friday. We took a taxi to Ford. Just like in the US, we found a nice gleaming modern building. We were asked to wait in the lobby, shortly after which two men came to talk to us. One was obviously the service manager and the other was there to translate. After a little back and forth we finally got some totals on what it’d cost to replace the transmission. The numbers were a bit shocking. There was no question that we’d stick with Two Brothers. Later that day Greg finally got a reply to his online query. The quote was exactly the same as what was presented to us at the dealership, 193,128.25 pesos for a new transmission, and 154,338.00 pesos for a rebuilt transmission! Now we needed to figure out how to get Two Brothers the money they needed to buy the transmission. There is a limit on how much money you can get out of ATMs at one time so it would take a while for us to scrape the cash together. Two Brothers suggested that we do an international wire transfer. I went to my banking app to see what I needed to do to transfer the money. After reading something that said it could take up to 15 days for a wire transfer to go through, I decided to call my bank. The person I spoke with told me that the transfer would happen the same day if I got it in before 3:30 pm. Great! After 3 frustrating phone calls to my bank and many texts back in forth with the garage to get all the international codes, addresses, account numbers, and whatnot I needed, we had it done shortly before 3 pm. The garage wanted the van on Sunday so we made arrangements to move into a cabin at the campground.
  • February 11, Saturday. We moved everything we thought we’d need for the next week out of the van into the cabin. This included our refrigerator, all the food we thought we might need, anything valuable, all of Greg’s musical instruments, and all of our toiletries.
  • February 12, Sunday. We dropped the van off in the morning. A little bit later the garage texted to say that they hadn’t received the wire transfer. So I sent them a copy of my confirmation of the transfer. They called their bank who told them it could take up to 5 days for the money to come through. The garage asked us to come to get the van. We stayed in the cabin because we had paid for it and parked the van out front.
  • February 15, Wednesday. We started to get a little stressed because we hadn’t heard from the garage about receiving the money yet. I called my bank. I told them that I was told that the money would go through the same day. Well, it did leave my account the same day. They told me it could take up to 15 days. We could have had all the cash from ATMs in that amount of time. I wanted to know where the money was. There was a third-party bank involved, had they received the money? My bank couldn’t tell me. How would I know when the money hit the recipient’s bank? Only the recipient could tell me. They told me that if the money wasn’t received after 15 days I could open an investigation. This was very frustrating. We didn’t want to be out of our money but we needed to get the van fixed. We didn’t think we could wait 15 days. We decided to just start trying to collect enough cash from ATMs in case the money ended up really lost. That afternoon Greg walked to what we thought was the closest ATM about a mile away and withdrew the limit.
  • February 16, Thursday. We needed more money. I did some research and found out that HSBC banks would let you withdraw up to 15,000 pesos at a time. The closest branch was in downtown Oaxaca. Greg got up early and took a colectivo into El Centro to get more cash. While he was gone Two Brothers called. They received the money! The only problem for us is that someone else had the room reserved. We had to move out and use up 3 days of camping credit.

We have mostly been staying in the campground since our van troubles but have gone into town a few times to take in the sights in Oaxaca. Here is a preview of some of the fun stuff we saw in El Centro.

  • February 17, Friday. We move out of the room for 3 days.
  • February 20, Monday. We pay for more days in the room, move back in, and take the van to the garage. They say it will be ready by February 25.
  • February 22, Wednesday. Two Brothers texts us and tell us that they didn’t have the correct model. They have to get another transmission. The van will be ready on February 28. Greg goes and pays for more days in the room.
  • February 27, Monday. I check with the garage to confirm the van will be ready the next day. They say it will take one more day and will be ready on March 1.
  • February 28, Tuesday. Greg sees the van being taken for a test drive. We get reports from other people in the campground saying they have seen it being driven. We get a message from the garage that the turbine in the transmission is bad and it will take another week to have it repaired. We pay for more time in the room.
  • March 1, Wednesday. After Greg does a lot of research on what the turbine is we walk over to the garage to try and talk to them about the bad part and clear up some confusion. Not a lot of confusion is cleared up but we feel a little bit better. Later in the afternoon, we walk back over to the garage to get a few things out of the van since we are staying another week in the cabin. We plan to get more stuff out of the van the next day, but when Greg is walking through town that evening he notices that the van is gone.

We had a little break from our worries when our friends we met in San Miguel de Allende, Melony and Santino, showed up at the campground. We spent a day with them on the Ruta de Mescal visiting a small Mescal Fabrica and then going on a lively tour to some agave fields in the town of Matatlan, 

  • March 2, Thursday. We walk by the garage in the morning to see if the van is back. It isn’t. We inquire about what is going on. They tell us there is a guarantee on the transmission so they have sent the van with the transmission to where they purchased the transmission to have it fixed.
  • March 4, Saturday. Greg walks back over to Two Brothers with a new friend who speaks Spanish. Greg is reassured that the van is in a safe place and that we will get it back by March 8.
  • March 8, Wednesday. No, we didn’t get the van back. We waited until about 4 in the afternoon and sent the garage a text. They said that the place they sent the van to wasn’t getting back to them. We were at a loss as to what to do next. We told our Spanish-speaking friends about it. We were planning an excursion with them the next day and asked if they would stop by the garage with us before we left for our outing. No problem.

I could continue this story as there is something new to add every day but I’m going to stop here. We hope to have some answers tonight.

People have remarked that we have been very calm and patient about this whole situation. We have and haven’t. The money thing was very worrisome. And when we were told that the turbine was bad Greg started having his doubts about everything. We were told that the transmission would be brand new. Greg couldn’t understand how a part of the transmission could be bad if the whole thing was new. He started questioning the garage’s honesty. And started talking about getting the van and taking it somewhere else. I reassured him that as long as the van was in their garage taking up so much space they had the motivation to get it fixed. But then the van disappeared – that was really concerning. There has been a lot of stress but getting angry or upset won’t help our situation.

Mostly I have stayed positive throughout this whole ordeal, thinking about the glowing review I would write when we finally get the van back with a perfect new transmission. But I’m starting to despair.  Will we ever get out of this room? Will we ever continue our journey?

On a positive note, we have met some great people and have made some wonderful friends. But we have said too many goodbyes. Everyone else gets to leave.

Notes about us, some of our expenses, and our rig:

  • All expenses are in US dollars.
  • We drive a 2015 Ford Transit Cargo Van that we upfitted ourselves to live in. Currently, the van gets about 17 miles to the gallon.
  • Our van is registered in Florida as a standard cargo van. Our van insurance is through USAA.
  • We are vegetarians and we cook – eating little packed or prepared food.
  • We get our health insurance through the ACA exchange in Florida. Our insurance is very basic and is mostly good only in Florida where we are residents, but hardly ever visit. Our costs for health insurance are one of the few things we don’t include in this report.
  • Our phone plan is with Google Fi. We pay a monthly fee of $110 plus tax for two people which gives us unlimited calling and text (in the US, Canada, & Mexico) and up to 50 gigs of high-speed internet per person. Our data plan works internationally at no extra cost. With Google Fi, we can make phone calls over wifi from our phone, tablet, or computer. The plan provides an extra sim card for our tablet at no extra cost. At any time we can switch to a metered plan which costs $20 a month for phone and text and $10 for each gig of data we use.
  • We receive our mail through St. Brendan’s Isle in Green Cove Springs, Florida. We pay $11.99 per month for the basic service plus an extra $7.99 to have the envelopes scanned and posted online where we have the option for small additional fees to have the envelopes opened and the contents scanned. There are additional charges if we want anything sent to us on the road. We keep $100 in an account with the service. When this runs low they charge us another $100.
  • Our dentist is in Los Algodones, Mexico. If you would like to read more about our experience with our Mexican dentist, click here.

And our total expenses for February were…


Here is the breakdown of categories…

Expenses February 2022
Gas $94.50
Insurance/Registration $76.31
Maintenance $0.00
Repairs $2,120.35
Van Total $2,291.16
Life in the Van
Upgrade/Repairs to Upfit $0.00
Utilities $1.59
Camping $554.00
Household $0.00
Laundry $2.65
Showers/bathroom $0.53
Tolls/Parking/Transportation $54.15
Van Life Total $612.92
Phone $124.06
Mail Service $100.00
Communication Total $224.06
Food $233.65
Booze $210.18
Cleaning/Paper Products $9.72
Medicine Cabinet $6.46
Consumables Total $460.01
Drinks/Eating Out $144.24
Museums/Attractions/Music $22.83
Entertainment Total $167.07
Eyes/Feet/Doctor $0.00
Dentist $0.00
Health Total $0.00
Clothes $0.00
Gifts/Charity $24.19
Gear $17.00
Personal Total $41.19
*Utilities include our water, propane for the stove and heater, and items that are required to run our composting toilet.
*Gear is anything we think we need but probably don’t. These are the things that make our life more fun and interesting, and keep us entertained and informed. Our NY Times subscription goes here. As well as expenses for hobbies, computer devices, books, kayaks, bikes, etc. These are the things that make us not quite minimalist.

I’m not really happy about this month’s expenses. But if you take out the amount we have spent on the van repair so far (we aren’t done paying yet) the total comes to $1,676.06. Not too bad. And if you start considering that we wouldn’t have paid nearly as much on “camping” or transportation (for colectivos and taxis to go to town to buy groceries and do a bit of sight-seeing) as we would have if we had been able to travel, our total could have been even less. Of course, then again, we would have spent more on gas. We only have a gas expense because we filled up on February 1 (we didn’t drive more than 30 miles in February).

Thankfully groceries still tend to be less expensive in Mexico. As well as eating out.

To see all of our expense reports, click here.

If you are interested in reading other expense reports from nomads who really know how to live cheaply while still having a good time, check out the blog from our friends Mark, Liesbet, and Maya at Roaming About.

The Camping/sleeping Report

Here are our camping/sleeping stats (all camping/sleeping is free unless otherwise indicated):

13 – nights at a campground ($191.93)
15 – nights in a cabin ($362.07)

Most of the month was spent in the cabin. Moving our stuff from the van to the room wasn’t too much trouble. Luckily our refrigerator is portable so we were able to take our food. We didn’t take our camp stove at first because friends loaned us an electric hotplate. Luckily we did end up grabbing our camp stove before the van disappeared as our friends have left, taking their cooktop.

The cabin is ok. The best thing about it is the private shower. The worse things are the extra expense and the occasional sound of critters in the walls.

The campground is lovely, though. We’ve had some fun times here.

Map and Miles

We did drive a few miles in February. There was the drive back from where the transmission went out. We also drove it in manual to get groceries and water before we took it in for repairs. But I don’t know exactly how many miles we did because the van disappeared from the garage before I could get the mileage. So no map this month or average cost per mile.

Mexico Tips

Taking Colectivos…

Since we have been homeless and transportation-less this past month we have learned a lot about taking public transportation. There are buses that go from El Tule to downtown Oaxaca but we have mostly relied on Colectivos. Colectivos are taxis that drive a specific route and pick up people along the way like a bus. Here in Oaxaca, they are red and white cars with 4 doors and five seats. The names of the towns they serve or the routes they drive are posted in big letters on their windshield. They are easier to catch than a bus because there are hundreds, maybe thousands of them. A ride cost 15 pesos.

One catches a colectivo by standing on the road where you see them driving. For us, at the campground, we just had a short walk to a major highway, 190, that leads straight into El Centro in Oaxaca. You can wave at one to get its attention. If it is full it will keep on moving. If you don’t wave and the colectivo sees you and needs passengers he will flash his lights, if you don’t wave him down he will keep moving. If the coloectivo has limited seats he will hold his fingers up outside the window indicating how many passengers he can take on.

Greg and Melanie getting out of a colectivo at Mal de Amor. We got un especial from the campground for this trip.

As I said the colectivos advertise their destinations on the windshield of their taxis but unless you are familiar with the local towns and streets in the area you probably won’t know where any of these places are. So we always just ask where they are going before we get in. When we are going to downtown Oaxaca, we say, “Va al Centro?” If they ask us where we are going in El Centro we have learned it is easiest to just say, “El estadio,” the stadium. You could probably ask them to let you off at a specific street but the stadium is a landmark everyone knows and is just about a mile walk from the tourist area. When we return to El Tule we ask, “Va al Tule?” If we are leaving from downtown, the best place to catch a ride is along highway 190 on the far side of the stadium. And when we stop I usually say, “La proxima esquina, por favor,” the next corner, please. You hand the driver your 15 pesos just before you want to get out. If you need change, no problem, these guys are pretty adept at making change while they drive.

Here is one of the more important things we have learned while taking colectivos, If you are a big person, like Greg, get in the back seat. It may look like you are taking up less space by sitting in the single seat in the front, but you’re not. This single bucket seat can hold two people if one moves over and half sits on the center console. Nice colectivos will have a cushion for you to sit on. The first time we took a colectivo Greg was sitting in the front. There was some confusion over money and we ended up paying extra. I now believe he was probably charging Greg for two seats.  Another time, a colectivo driver once pulled over after a few bocks and asked Greg to get in the back. After that Greg always avoided getting in the front unless there was no other choice.

Colectivos will also offer you an “Especial,” a special trip. If you don’t want to pay extra it is best to say, “No quiero un especial,” I don’t want a special. But then things happen like when I asked the driver if he went to Walmart. He did. We set off and I realized he was going the wrong way. I think he realized it too and said to me, “Hay dos Walmarts,” there are two Walmarts. I explained which one we wanted to go to and he changed course. When we got there we were charged for an especial.

Colectivos have been quite a learning process for us but they are often interesting cultural experiences from the music they play in the cabs to the reckless drivers or the drivers who don’t seem to be in a hurry at all to learning the life story of a deportee who came back to Oaxaca knowing little Spanish and missing steak and hashbrowns.

Right Now

We are in the cabin at the campground. We just had a fun outing with friends yesterday, but a couple of those friends are leaving on Sunday. We are just waiting. But I know, some way or another we will be somewhere else this time next month. I hope.

UPDATE! We just got back from seeing the van. We know where it is. But it is still broken. More on this story next month.

After a day of drinking mezcal, playing on the swing in El Tule.

Click on pics to enlarge, read captions, and view in a slide show!

15 thoughts on “Nomad Life & Expenses February 2023

  1. Wow, guys. What a shit show!! This was NOT a fun post to read. I can’t believe all the bad luck and unprofessionalism that has been going on. And the cost… I’m so sorry to read this. But I am happy that the van isn’t lost. You know where it is. But why are there still issues? And, our worry has been that this transmission from Two Brothers was a rebuilt one at that price. But if that’s the case, why wouldn’t they have told you this? OMG…

    We are keeping our fingers crossed that whatever issue is left will be fixed soon. Thing is that you can’t threaten with anything or be upset as long as they have your van and it needs to be fixed. We had a similar situation with Zesty and his windshield way back when in Santa Fe. But, instead of thinking about the positive review we would write at the end, we kept fuming about the bad review we would write at the end. And, we did.

    I hope your saga comes to an end soon and that this end will be a happy one!

    1. So the van is at another garaje where the specialize in transmissions. Some Spanish speaking friends went with us to Two Brothers and one of the mechanics road with us to the other garage. It is way on the other side of town. It took us an hour or more to get there.

      They think there is an electrical problem now. And they are waiting for parts. We feel much better now we’ve seen the van. The inside looked untouched.

      Yes, we can’t really get mad as long as they are working on it. I want to stay the course. Greg has mentioned taking it to Ford but it is just too much money. And right now we have the time. We have a decent place to stay. And we were able to get more of our things out of the van.

      I really think the mechanics are trying to get the van fixed. There have just been lots of complications. I think having our Spanish speaking friends talk to them has sort of helped with communication.

      I hope it comes to an end soon. But we are settling in and might take some language classes in Oaxaca next week.

    1. Living and/or traveling in another country requires a cellphone chip for that country, credit card, online banking, and the dialing conversion chart for 800 numbers. We are always available to help anyone 🙂

      1. Thanks Chris. You and Juan have been a great help to us. I have a phone chip now. I still need an 800 conversion chart. And we already have the online banking. What we really need yo now is learn more Spanish. We are working on that. Luckily we keep meeting kind people (like you) along the way that have been helping us. It is a learning experience!

    2. Thanks! At least we know where the van is now. I feel confident it will be fixed. Just don’t know when.

  2. Oh, what fresh hell is this? Hard to read this…was thinking your van might end up in a chop shop for parts by an unscrupulous dealer. Here’s hoping you get Ballena Blanca back soon, and in wonderful driving condition.

    1. Thanks, Michelle. It’s not in a chop shop. When we saw her everything inside looked untouched. It’s at a real transmission shop now so hopefully it won’t be long until she is really fixed.

    1. Sorry, I’m not on top of these comments. I’ve had phone issues and am not getting notices anymore.

      No van yet, but they say it is supposed to be ready this Thursday. There have been lots of delays so we aren’t getting our hopes up.

      All I know for sure is it will end one way or another and we will move on (hopefully with the van!).

  3. I’m so sorry to hear all this and hope you will have your home back soon. Stressful process indeed, big gentle hug.

    1. Thanks, Tina. We have been practicing lots of patience. But we are so ready to be moving again and have this behind us.

  4. Ugh! This sounds so challenging! Hope the issues with your van are resolved soon. We are thinking about you guys.
    Perri and Dan

    1. Thanks so much. It is becoming very challenging, but I know it will end one way or the other eventually.

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