Good news! The van has been repaired! If you have been following along with our monthly reports from the road you know that our beloved van, Ballena Blanca, broke down on February 1st in Oaxaca, México. If you haven’t been following along you might want to review our posts from February, March, and April.
The end of the van story?…
When we last left off Ballena Blanca was back in our possession parked at the campground, we had moved out of the room back into our beloved home and were waiting for a part we had ordered from the US that we believed would finally fix her. Meanwhile, friends were worrying about us in various countries throughout the Americas. Two of those people, our traveling friends Mark and Liesbet called us from Ecuador. They are great problem solvers and manage to live amazingly frugally. They gave us some good advice. Since we had the van back, why don’t we take it to Ford to get a second opinion – just to make sure we were on the right track. It sounded like a good idea.
We caught a couple of buses to Ford to talk to someone about making an appointment. Of course, we could have just called Ford but there was the communication barrier. We have discovered that communication is much easier in person when everyone doesn’t speak the same language. At Ford, we met with Pedro who is apparently their only Service Manager that knows some English. It was apparent that English was a bit of a struggle for Pedro but we were thankful to have someone who could understand us. As a bonus he also seemed to understand our predicament of living in the campground – most likely because he was dealing with other campers from our RV Park with a broken vehicle. We told him our tale and made an appointment for the next day. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to finish the diagnostic in one day so we drove back to the campground, offloaded all of our stuff back into the room, and returned the following morning on Friday, dropped the van off, and took a couple of buses back to the campground.
We didn’t hear anything over the weekend so finally, on Monday first thing in the morning Greg sent an email to Pedro. Pedro replied telling us we had a damaged valve body and that we needed a new transmission.
But we already had a new transmission!
Ford sent a quote. Remember back in February when we got an estimate from Ford that a new transmission was going to cost about $10,000 US? The price was still the same in April.
I had questions. So we decided to avail ourselves of our Spanish-speaking friends to help us call Ford and talk to Pedro. We all gathered in our friends Layne and Michael’s van and rang him up. Unfortunately, even though communication was better when everyone could speak their own language the result was the same. We needed a new transmission. And just like the local garage, Ford needed the money for the part upfront. Luckily, with Ford, we could pay with a credit card.
So we left immediately and hopped on a couple of buses to the Ford Dealership to pay.
This is one of the nicest Fords I’ve ever been in. The building is sharp looking and clean. The security is strict. You can’t drive into the service center without an appointment and you can’t leave without a ticket. There is lots of free cold bottled water with the dealership’s label on it. Everyone is super nice. And as I discovered on this second to last bus ride to Ford, they offer a free taxi service home when you drop off your vehicle. The taxi’s range didn’t extend as far as the campground but we took it as far as it would take us, eliminating one bus ride, and caught a bus the rest of the way.
Meanwhile – remember the ECU that we ordered in April after the Transmission shop told us that that was what we needed to fix the van? Despite all kinds of delays in getting the part in the mail, it was finally on its way. Once it arrived in Mexico City we were told that we owed an import tax on it. By this time we had already gotten the new diagnosis and knew it was probably not what we needed to fix the van. Still, Greg decided that we should go ahead and receive it. We paid the tax and in a few days, it was delivered to the campground.
This is when I realized our severe dysfunction. It had arrived! Something, despite having lots of difficulties acquiring, was very delayed, which we paid lots of money for (over twice as much as it was worth with shipping and import taxes), and ultimately didn’t need at all, actually arrived on our doorstep. And we were excited! It wasn’t a piece of our lives hanging out in limbo land. It had a beginning, a middle, and most importantly an end.
On May 22 the new transmission arrived at Ford. And on Friday, May 26 we picked up our repaired van.
It should have been exciting, right? It wasn’t. We were worn down by the whole process and we still had a lot to deal with. We had Ford load up the faulty transmission (which Greg had started calling, Frankenmission) in the van and drove straight from Ford to our mechanics, Two Brothers. We had already informed Two Brothers about what was going on with Ford. And they had indicated to us that the transmission shop would honor the guarantee on the transmission if we show them the receipt from Ford and that the new transmission was working. So we picked up Willow and Uziel (our mechanics) and drove to the transmission shop with the brothers sitting on top of the Frankenmission in the back of Ballena Blanca.
When we arrived the employees of the transmission shop were having lunch. The owner focused on his eggdrop soup and never looked anyone in the eye as Willow and Uziel advocated for us over and over. There was lots of Spanish spoken that I didn’t understand. Greg got mad once. But after at least 20 minutes it was clear that he wasn’t going to honor the guarantee and refund our money.
We all drove back to Two Brothers. We gave the brothers the transmission and told them if they could get any money from it that they could take the rest of the money we owed them for their labor out of it and send us what remained. They told us that we didn’t owe them anything and that they would send us the money if they could sell it. Of course, we got screwed big time, but so did the brothers. I told them this. I told them that I realize that they did the job they told us that they would do – install the transmission – but that they had spent much more time trying to help us get the ordeal resolved. I thanked them. They both shook Greg’s hand and much to my surprise, Willow and Uziel, these two shy and reserved men both gave me a hug.
After my surprise hugs, we drove back to the campground. Cali, the groundskeeper, was there to open the gate. As we drove past people and their rigs there were many thumbs up and a smattering of applause. Our story had come to a celebrated end.
Social life in the RV Park…
On to more pleasant stuff. May was a social month. We made friends with a couple of Belgians named Michel and Roos at the beginning of the month and had a nice happy hour with them one night then on the next night we made pizza together in the campgrounds pizza oven. The next day they put their rig in storage and flew back to Belgian for the summer.
Soon after that, we had a surprise. Tristan and Lauren showed back up. We had met them what seemed like just weeks earlier when they were heading south. Turns out it had been a much longer time and they were on their journey back north to Canada. We had a nice happy hour with them and once they heard that other friends, Michael and Layne, would be returning to the campground they stayed a few more nights (the campground kind of sucks you in like that). Layne and Michael showed up and we all had a big time recreating one of our happy hours outside the bathrooms/showers. Then Rob and Mandy showed back up on their journey back to the US where they will make more money for more travel. You know you’ve been in a place way too long when you see everyone starting to head back north.
We spent our last night in El Tule hanging out with Susan and Hugh, a Canadian couple heading south as far as the journey takes them.
We left El Ranch RV Park, El Tule and Oaxaca on May 29. We had been there for 4 months and 5 days. Lots of people came and went during that time. And many of those people heard parts of our story. But only a few were there with us for the whole saga. One of those was Cali. Cali doesn’t speak any English and from what we have been told by Méxican travelers his Spanish isn’t that great. Most likely his first language is the indigenous Zapotec. I’m not sure what Cali’s title at the campground is. He does everything. He checks people in. He makes sure they know where everything is. He cleans the pool, the bathrooms, and the common areas. He takes care of the plants. He waters the whole lawn by hand multiple times a week. He makes sure that you know how to recycle correctly and will admonish you if you do it wrong. He opens and closes the gigantic entrance gate. He receives packages. Sometimes he can be disagreeable and he hates it when people don’t follow the rules. Almost everyone has a story about getting up in the wee hours of the morning (4 am) to use the bathroom only to find Cali cleaning it in the dark. If Cali realizes that you speak good Spanish he will chat you up and give you an earful of what everyone is doing wrong.
Greg engaged him early on with simple Spanish asking him how he was. Ever since then, Cali was always kind and friendly to us. He’d tease Greg by calling him Canada – presumably because he didn’t think that Americans could be so friendly. He joked about how long we had been at the campground and keep telling us it would be “dos mas meses” (two more months). He loved to joke with Greg about drinking mezcal (changing Greg’s nickname from Canada to Cuixe – a type of mezcal) and every once in a while he’d join us for a drink. He made our whole experience just a little bit more interesting and special.
Walks and birds…
Toward the end of our stay in El Tule, I started taking my big camera on our walks again looking for wildlife to document. On a few of our last few days, we got adopted by two stray dogs. They followed us up the hill that overlooked the town and seemed disappointed when we turned around. I was relieved that they didn’t try to follow us back to the campground and we didn’t have to be mean to them to discourage them from crossing the busy highway. Here is some of the wildlife I spotted and a pic of our dog friends.
Hitting the road…
The Monday after we got the van back we hit the road. It was May 29 and we had 6 days to get to the border before our Temporary Import Permit (TIP) ran out. Being in the country with an expired TIP could lead to a big fine and possibly having our vehicle confiscated. We needed to get out!
We decided to go all toll roads and mostly camp at places we were already familiar with. Our first stop was in Cholula, Puebla where we had camped about 4 1/2 months previously. Our second stop was a place we had visited 4 years previously, the Pueblo Mágico, Mineral de Pozos, Guanajuato.
We took a morning walk from the campground in Mineral de Pozos before we hit the road for the day. We saw lots of changes. Big houses were being built and the ruins we were able to walk through freely before were now fenced off and locked up.
And our total expenses for May were…
Here is the breakdown of categories…
So our biggest expense category this month is obviously Van Repairs. But that total isn’t entirely for the transmission. We also had to buy a new van battery. The day after we got Ballena Blanca back to the campground we found out her battery was dead when we tried to lock her doors. We borrowed a charger from a neighboring camper and charged it overnight. Still dead. Greg loaded up the dead battery in a backpack and took the bus to Auto Zone. After $185.22, an arduous walk to and from the bus stop, and the aggravation of having the battery located under the driver’s seat Ballena Blanca was alive again.
Our transmission repair for the month came out to $10,464.75. And the total money we spent on the transmission over four months came out to $13,974.77. Here is a breakdown of our costs if you are interested:
|Diagnostic from Two Brothers||$18.58|
|International Wire Fees||$45|
|ECU with Shipping||$578|
|ECU Import Tax||$62.33|
|New Transmission from Ford||$9501.67|
|Labor New Transmission||$900.75|
Our second-highest total for May was camping at $1,107.06. This total includes camping for 2 1/2 months. Way back in March when we were still paying for lodging and camping by the week, one of the owners of the RV Park told us to not worry about it to the end. In the end, they only charged us the camping rate (300 pesos per day as opposed to the room rate of 450 pesos per day) and gave us monthly and weekly discounts.
One unusual expense we had in May was for tolls, $68.59. We usually avoid the toll roads in Mexico but our need to leave the country quickly and worries about being somewhere accessible if something went wrong with the van steered us to these expensive roadways.
Our grocery bill shot up in May to $355.23 – perhaps due to a few factors. One, we may have been eating more expensive food. Like, for instance, chocolate chips. I like to make my own granola bars with chocolate chips. I stocked up on bags of chocolate chips before we left the US because sometimes they are hard to find and they are always expensive. Once my stash ran out we had to start buying the expensive stuff. But in addition to making granola bars with them, I just started eating them by the bagful. It was a stressful time.
Another factor (for all costs) was probably the strengthening peso, weakening dollar. Our best exchange rate back in December was about 19.73 pesos to the dollar. In May the last time we got cash from the back, we got 17.75 pesos for our dollar. This mean $300 worth of groceries in December were now costing us $333 in May.
And our high cost of booze – $369.07. It was a stressful time.
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.
22 – nights in the cabin at EL Rancho RV Park
6 – nights in our beloved broken Ballena Blanca in El Rancho RV Park
2 – nights in other paid campgrounds
1 – night free at a truck stop/Pemex Station
Map and Miles
We drove 824 miles in May from El Rancho RV Park to a truck stop in Nuevo Leon. Our cost for gas per mile was 31¢.
Has there ever been something you needed and as you are driving down the road you see a truck full of that thing and just thought, “If I could flag that truck down it would save me a trip to the store”? Well, in Mexico, you can just flag that truck down.
We were returning from a day out with our friends heading to a Purficada to buy drinking water when we found ourselves driving parallel to a truck full of water garrafones on the highway. My friends signaled for the driver to pull over, he did, and we bought a few garrafones and filled up our water containers. We paid 38 pesos and were on our way.
Right now we are at Greg’s parents’ house in North Carolina. We have been traveling non-stop since we left Oaxaca a month ago. Almost every day in June has been spent either driving or visiting with friends.
We are looking forward to spending the summer in the southeast house sitting and visiting more friends. We are changing our residency this summer from Florida to South Carolina, getting new doctors, and continuing to deal with problems with the van (unfortunately our van woes weren’t over when we left Oaxaca). And of course, I’m going to try to catch up on the blog (I have at least 4 posts to write about our time in Oaxaca). But the biggest thing we will do this summer is work on the plan for the next big adventure…
We had a lot of time to reflect and think about what we want to do with our lives we were stranded in Oaxaca. I’m always coming up with ideas about what to do next. And we have bounced around a lot of them. But one idea has stuck for a while now. We have decided to give the van a rest, buy some backpacks, fly to Ecuador, and take 6 months of Spanish lessons starting this fall.
We have lots to do to make this idea a reality. Buy bags and clothes suited for traveling light. Research schools. Find lodging and cheap flights. Organize my computer. Find a place to store Ballena Blanca and all of our stuff. And since we will be in Ecuador, plan for a trip to the Galapagos!
*Click pics to enlarge, read captions, and view in a slide show.