11 March 2008

2003 - A Gringa Drives to Belize

This is the original Two Gringas adventure.

In 2003 Lena and Denise drove a somewhat modified Toyota Tercel from near Seattle, Washington, USA to near Dangriga in southern Belize, Central America.

This newly revised, full-photo version is published here for the first time.

For those interested, the pseudo-realtime original Belize Forum travelogue, with other folks' commentary, is still available.

Your encouragement keeps me writing; please leave a comment...

Galena Alyson Canada 11 March 2008 Vashon Island, Washington, USA

01 March 2008

Day 1 — Thursday 16 October 2003 — Washington - Idaho - Montana

[The very beginning of all things Two Gringas...]

"Are you sure this is the way to Belize?"

Mile 0 - Vashon Island, Washington

Pitch dark and pouring down rain at 5 AM; just a perfect time to be leaving western Washington State. The Belize Bomber** is packed; and when I say "packed" I mean she's riding pretty low in the water.

Catch the 5:45 AM ferry off the north end of Vashon Island, the last ferry I'll be riding for quite a while. Stop in West Seattle to pick up Denise — we contemplate the completely filled back seat.

"What about the trunk?" she inquires.

I laugh, "surely you're joking", and pop the lid to reveal a nondescript, compressed mass; roughly conforming to the inside of the trunk lid. I quickly close the lid before any of the contents have time to contemplate escape.

We use her portable air compressor to pump the tires up to 37 psi (rated max. 44 psi) and the wheels take on a more normal, rounded appearance — we may actually have a chance with this load...

Everything loaded (somehow), we venture back into the pouring rain.

. . .

Almost 300 miles later we have crossed the Cascade Mountains and the seemingly endless plateau of eastern Washington State nearly to its eastern border with Idaho, and it is still pouring rain.

Mile 304

We gas up at the east end of Spokane, WA — first time we've had the new auxiliary tank completely full. Our next fillup will allow us to calculate our gas mileage for the first time — but that won't be for another couple days — in Colorado!

. . .

We cross the Idaho panhandle and head up into the mountains which guard Montana's high plateau, snow dusting the hilltops. Finally, near the end of the climb, the rain diminishes to sprinkles and we break for lunch at the Montana Bar.

Moving on, we finally leave the rain for good as climb up into Montana heading east and, just before the city of Butte, turn south on 15 — finally for the first time heading in the direction of Central America — and cross the Contenintal Divide of the Montana Rocky Mountains. The plateau is so high, and the Rockies so low here, that the effect was more that of driving through a range of low hills — had there not been a sign at the Divide we would have driven right past, never the wiser.

. . .

Mile 659

A short time later (as we're learning to measure road time) dusk is falling as we pull into the Super 8 Motel at Dillon MT for the night (not recommended). A quick dinner at the Pizza Hut next door, and we're down for the night.

== End of Day 1, Mile 659, Dillon, MT ==

** "The Belize Bomber" is my old 1992 Toyota Tercel, bought it new in '91 but now the paint is chipped and faded and there are a few dents and dings. But only 77,000 original miles, good tires and well maintained and 35 MPG — in other words, the perfect Belize car. Well, perfect after we installed the after-market air conditioning and a 32 gallon auxiliary fuel tank — which is why it's now called the Belize Bomber... ;-)

Clic here to see all Day 1 pix...

Day 2 — Friday 17 October 2003 —
Montana - Idaho - Utah - Colorado

"Uh, if this is Friday then, uh, this must be Utah..."

Mile 659 - Dillon, Montana

Eight hours sleep and it felt like six. Probably the past few days and yesterday's early start catching up with me.

Straight south out of Montana and into Utah, pretty barren all in all. Straight on through Salt Lake City.

SLC scenic highpoints: three Home Depots, one Costco, six petroleum refineries, endless tract homes and malls (newly built or under construction), one backhoe half-fallen off truck on side of road — interesting enough to back traffic up for miles both ways on freeway — SLC: boring place to visit, wouldn't want to live there; looks like it was a pretty nice place before affluence got here (Belizeans, take heed ;-)...

Boring, endless freeway south and southward...finally hit the cutoff to Hwy 70 and we're heading east again through Utah canyon country [see photos]. The proverbial painted desert; difficult to photograph with any justice, impossible to describe in words. Go there yourself.

We pull in at one of many "viewpoints" for a potty break and a breathtaking view of a sheer canyon — one of many which form the watershed of the Colorado River — a grand canyon leading to The Grand Canyon... We hike down to the edge and take postcard photos and vanity photos.

At the parking, by the toilets, the official signs every 30 feet say "No Soliciting, No Vending". All along the parking strip, and underneath the signs, Navajo from Arizona have blankets spread out and covered with beadwork, jewelry and pottery, bought in AZ and brought up here for resale. I decide on a Navajo wedding vase as a "souvenir of Utah", priced at $25.

"I'd be interested in the small wedding vase there for $20, if that's acceptable."

I'm practising for Mexico... ;-)

As this is not, strictly speaking, a touristic road trip, we bypass Lake Powell (formerly Glen Canyon, where the real Painted Desert was) and Arches *sigh*, and tunnel off into the growing darkness following the painted lines in the headlights...

We pull into Grand Junction, Colorado, early enough to catch dinner and late enough to be exhausted — thirteen hours on the road, scenic view stops and all. The food in my belly immediately starts to put my lights out, right there in the restaurant. Denise drags my sorry ass back to the hotel, and we perk up enough to deal with email and photo uploading, and to make sure we don't get to bed till nearly midnight *sigh*.

The alarm's set for 7 AM...good night.

== End of Day 2, Mile 1356, Grand Jct, CO ==

Clic here to see all Day 2 pix...

Day 3 — Saturday 18 October 2003 —
Colorado - New Mexico - Texas

"(Still) too much scenery on too little time..."

Mile 1356 - Grand Junction, Colorado

Despite not getting to sleep until nearly midnight last night, and rising up at 7 AM, not too bad this morning — must be getting into the groove.

Gassed up the auxiliary tank (took 30 gallons, I think the original 11 gallon fuel tank is now a de facto reserve tank ;-) and ran our first mileage calculation.

If we got the tanks topped-off properly, it looks like we got 34 MPG out of the first tank — pretty amazing considering we're overloaded, crossed over mountains, ran at 70-80 MPH much of the time and ran the A/C through Utah. When the car was new 12 years ago it got 37 MPG at 70-80 MPH running empty with one person, no A/C. Seems suspicious, but possible...we'll see at the next fill-up in Texas...

Brunch in Aspen, Colorado (really!). Rich people in tee shirts and jeans, pretending to be normal, but the manicures and multiple face lifts give them away...

Aspen is interesting in a sort of fake-really-well-done kind of way. It's a manicured, story-book kind of place, all the landscaping perfect (especially the currently in-vogue "naturalized" landscaping), all the buildings new or perfectly maintained. There is no faded paint in Aspen. They probably have an ordinance against it...

The drive up out of Aspen to Independence Pass is spectacular, to say the least. Don't bring your mega-motorhome up here -- nothing over 35 feet long is permitted, and with good reason: steep, windey and narrow -- in places only one lane for both directions, blasted out of the bare cliff.

In spots you can look up and see the road switch-backing above you miles away and thousands of feet higher. You top the pass at over 12,000 feet. I got a headache and shortness of breath just getting out of the car to take a picture.

Now this leg ought to screw up our gas mileage!

Down and up and down and back up and back down over range after range and pass after pass (many at near 10,000 feet), so much darn scenery that I had to cut Denise off.

Denise: "Another 10,000 foot pass! Pull over here!"

Lena: "No. No more scenic overlooks, no photo, no."

Denise: "But..."

Lena: "There, I slowed down to 50, you can snap one out the window if you like..."

Denise doesn't seem to like my high-RPM, clutch-popping, power-shifting, pass-everyone-I-can style of two-way highway mountain driving. Myself, I don't get what her problem is, but whatever... She says:

"Quick, pull in at this 7-Eleven store!"

Reflexively, I do so — and watch every vehicle I've passed in the past half hour go snaking by. I think this is her way of saying she wants to drive for a while...

The convenience store is empty except for us and a clerk who's leaning on the counter poking listlessly at the computerized cash register as if trying to get a rise out of it. I rest against the counter while Denise gets whatever.

"Where y'all comin' from?"

"Seattle" I reply with a tired smile.

Her eyes widen as she shows some interest.

"Woah, that's quite a drive! Where ya headed?"

"Belize" I reply, before I can think better of it.

She looks at me like a goat staring at a new fence.**

"Where's that?"

"Central America, south of Mexico, next to Guatemala."

The clerk's face takes on an odd expression, and the conversation is over: she has determined that I'm trying to put one over on her.

From here on it's pretty much just a jog out to Colorado Springs, and then a long haul south on Hwy 25 into New Mexico, crossing over just as it's getting dark.

Now we pay for all the scenic stops in Colorado with a nighttime haul diagonally across the northeastern corner of New Mexico toward Texas. Stopping only for a quick bite and a change of drivers at a truck stop (I bought a fake Indian arrowhead as a souvenir 99 cents souvenir of New Mexico ;-), we're off like a coyote after a jackrabbit...

In the endless head-lit ruler-straight dotted line, we almost miss the crossing into Texas, a hard brake from 80 MPH to pull off onto the shoulder, and a long reverse at 20 back up to the sign. A quick snapshot, and we're off again into the bug spattered night...

I forgot about the time zone change going into Texas, so we're an hour later than I'd told the motel clerk over the phone -- but she waited up for us (10:30 PM, Texas time) "it's just Texas hospitality" sez Denise.

Off to our room, email and photo upload and under the covers and...out.

== End of Day 3, Mile 1909, Dalhart, TX ==

** Apologies to the Red Green Show. ;-)

Clic here to see all Day 3 pix...

Days 4 & 5 — Sunday 19 & Monday 20 October 2003 — Texas & More Texas

"Texas: Where dirt comes to die."

Now, I have to be careful what I say here, because I imagine that a lot of you are, in fact, Texan; and several of my business associates (on whose goodwill I depend) are Texan. So I'd better watch my mouth -er- fingers...

For starters, I need to tell you that that phrase up there about dirt is not mine — I just now got it off a genuine born and bred and livin' in Texas Texan — so you can't get me for that one.

Second, I'd like to point out that we were in three states on Day 1, four states on Day 2, three states on day 3, and Day 4 and Day 5 were spent crossing — that's right — Texas.

Third, I'll just mention that we've been clicking off between one and two hundred digital pics per day, except for days 4 and 5 which have run about a dozen apiece. Mostly oil rigs, sorgum, and dirt. Texas is not scenic. At least not on the route we chose. Now Texas is BIG, and I'm told that there's some scenery a thousand or two miles the other way from where we've been, and I'm fully prepared to believe it. But we didn't see any... ;-)

Now the people — the people are another thing altogether. Strangers smile at you — strangers *talk* to you — for no special reason! Now coming from up north this can be very unsettling: first you assume they want something (they don't), then you guess that they're in need of help of some kind (they aren't), finally you conclude that they're insane, but harmless. Eventually, if you stay long enough, you start waving at strangers. Watch out for the symptoms.

Mile 1909 - Dalhart, Texas

Make coffee, pack up, check out, drive.

Driving, driving, driving, driving, driving, driving, driving, driving, ...

For some reason which (at least to my mind) defies explanation, Texas does not have "rest areas", they have "picnic areas". These are littered along the (endless) highways at roughly the intervals at which other states would place rest stops. Evidently roadside picnics are a very popular deal in Texas, though I never actually saw anyone with the fixins spread out...

Now the only significant difference between a rest area and a picnic area seems to be the omission of the public toilet. Picnic areas lack toilet facilities of any kind — well, let me amend that — there are always a couple trees planted, so I suppose it is just the women's facilities which have been overlooked.

Now, it does occur to me that the aforementioned oversight may, in fact, be a result of the political clout of the Texas convenience store lobby — these little gas/snack/potty stops are a regular and necessary feature of the Texan highway landscape.

We have stopped at one such establishment in Lelia Lake — or maybe it was Hedley? — I'm not sure, somewhere thereabouts between Amarillo and Childress, anyway. We've just availed ourselves of the facilities and are waiting to pay for some drinks. A local woman is at the counter, all dressed up for a trip up to Amarillo; she and the clerk are having an animated conversation.

Local Woman: "...and so the wedding rehearsal is tomorrow and I'm on my way up there just now... I'll be staying with Susie, you know..."

Store Clerk: "Well, I just wish I could be there myself, your Susie is just such a pretty little thing — why, I remember how my Jimmy used to be out in the front yard there, when he was maybe twelve or so, and your Susie would pass by and she so pretty and all, and my Jimmy, why he would be just beside himself when she smile at him so..."

This went on for some time as we waited. We didn't mind in the least — it was as if we'd just popped into the middle of a novel — quite entertaining really.

Mile 2451 - Temple, TX

We spot an off-brand motel just beyond Temple, Texas and pull off. The office counter is very high; at five foot ten the thing is well up at my chest level. Ensconced behind this edifice is the owner: a very short, portly, brown, soft-spoken and heavily accented east Indian fellow. I ask him about the counter, and he says most of his clients seem to be very tall.

I ask about the room, and yes, he has one available and it's sixty dollars. I ask if that's his best price and he can give it to me for fifty-five. I gaze out the office window, noting the rather large number of rooms (50?) and the rather small number of vehicles in the lot (7?).

"But I can give you the Senior Discount and make it fifty." I decide not to be offended — I'm not 50.

"We're on a corporate account; here's my business card. Does that help?"

"Ah! Corporate Discount — lowest price! — forty-five dollars."

Sounds good to me, Denise checks out the room, it's OK, a credit card appears.

(Just practicing for Mexico... ;-)

== End of Day 4, start of Day 5, Mile 2451, Temple, TX ==

Mile 2528 - Austin, Texas

We phone Texas Ron to let him know we're in town and to get directions. We subsequently disregard his directions and get most of the way into Austin before backtracking and following the directions. I think we've become too used to long-distance hauling and the mere 30 minute drive from our hotel confused us...

We meet with Ron and his boss Ron. These are some good folks — very Texas (see note above in re the people) — a lot of fun to be around and good to work with. But not as tall as I would have anticipated based on the counter height in the motel office. Of course, they weren't wearing their cowboy hats at the time, so they may actually be a bit taller...

Through the miracle of modern American warehouse retailing, we pull into a nearby Costco (Costco #1 is where we shop up in Seattle ;-) and gas up cheap and buy a couple things we need and several things we don't (the usual for Costco ;-).

Evidently the first mileage number (34.0 MPG, from WA to CO) was not, in fact, a mistake — this time, driving a 12,000 foot pass over the Rockies in Colorado and running at 75-80 MPH across New Mexico and Texas, still grossly overloaded and running the A/C all the way, we got ...drumroll... 33.5 MPG! I tell you, these little Toyotas are amazing...

Well, the time has come. While visiting with the Rons, Denise used the phone to book a rental car at a nearby agency. She will drive to Houston, spend a night and visit the Space Center (she's an aero- and astro-nut), and then fly back home to rainy Seattle. I, on the other hand, will proceed southward solo to McAllen for the night, and cross over into Mexico in the morning.

It has been an intense, wild, five-day odyssey, and we sit quietly in the Belize Bomber, temporarily shut off and silent, doors propped open, parked in the shade of the one lonely tree in the rental agency lot. It is hard to find things to say.

In my mind I am merely mid-journey, and already mentally pumping up for the haul through Mexico. Denise, on the other hand, is trying to look forward to her long-wished-for visit to the Johnson Space Center, but in her mind she is leaving the adventure part-way, and already having to return to the rain and her job.

It is pleasant in the shade with a warm breeze blowing through the car. Denise and I sit quietly, not saying much; about to part ways and just kind of taking in the moment.

== Not quite the end of Day 5, Mile 2528, Austin, TX ==

Clic here to see all Day 4-5 pix...

Day 5, Part 2 — Monday afternoon 20 October 2003 — Just a Little More Texas...

"Why 'call in sick' when you can 'call in insane'?"

Mile 2528 - Austin, Texas

It is pleasant in the shade with a warm breeze blowing through the car. Denise and I sit quietly, not saying much; about to part ways and just kind of taking in the moment. We take turns glancing towards the lot where her rental car awaits.

"Wow, this is it, I guess."

"Yep. What a ride, huh?"

"What a ride..."

"Well, you must be looking forward to Houston..."

"True, true... been meaning to go for years now."

"Pretty cool, I guess, for an astro-nut like you."

"Yep, pretty cool..."

Beyond the shade the parking lot is baking in the Texas sun. No one else is in the lot; the agency awaits its only customer.

"The Company will pay your return flight."


"There's a line-item in the start-up budget for an extra flight, should that be necessary, so the Company can pay your return flight."

"From Belize."

"From Belize."

"You're joking, right?"

"Nope. Consider this: If something happens to me and/or the vehicle on the way down, the entire project and the future of the Company is at risk. With you along, the chances of something seriously bad happening are reduced, not by half, but by a much, much larger factor.** The Company pays for insurance; the Company will pay your return flight."

There is a confused pause. If "tug-o-war" could be a facial expression, it's on Denise's face right now.

"I already have a flight booked out of Houston tomorrow."

"It's changeable."

"There's a hundred dollar fee."


Another pause. Now she looks like she's trying to pass a stone.

"How long does it take from here to Belize?"

"Three to five days, depending on weather, how early our starts are, and how often we get lost."

"Man, that'll use up all my remaining vacation."

"Isn't this a vacation?"

"Oh yeah, oh yeah... what a ride, huh?"

"Yep, quite a ride. And really, we're only half way. The other half of the Adventure is yet to come."

"I hate you."

"I know."

We both gaze off toward the rental office.

"Stuff is piling up at work."

"Yes, but one way or the other, two years from now all that stuff will be long done -- will you remember it then?"

We both gaze off toward the rental office.

"Well, I'd better go cancel the car, we're burning daylight."

Denise is gone and back within sixty seconds. There is something like a grin crossed with a scowl on her face. I'm still in the passenger seat. She starts the car, puts it in gear, punches on the A/C, and we're headed toward the on-ramp. She is glaring fiercely straight ahead.

"You always do this to me!"

"I can't make anyone do what they don't already want to do."

"I know, but you always do this to me!"

Mile 2855 - McAllen, Texas

It's a brand new Motel 6, but nothing special and only OK for the price. For some weird reason the room is chilled to 62 degrees F. We actually have to turn the heat on to make the room tolerable.

I get online and book D's Belize-to-Houston one-way for the following Sunday, while she gets on the phone and moves her Houston-Seattle flight out from Tuesday to Saturday — yes, she'll still get her precious day at the Space Center...

I take care of email and the last postings before Mexico. I head to bed at midnight. Denise stays up till 1 AM doing her timecard online and "explaining" her extended absence to her coworkers via email. (Earlier during the drive she'd phoned her boss and, to her annoyance, he said "go for it.") We need to be up with the sun to get insurance, top off the tanks, and start the Mexican customs and immigration rigmarole.

After traversing seven states in five days, tomorrow we finally cross our first international border...into Mexico...

== End of Day 5, Mile 2855, McAllen, TX ==

** In addition to being an engineer, Denise is an expert mechanic. And five foot ten, with some serious muscles and the attitude to match. You don't mess with Neesie....

Clic here to see all Day 4-5 pix...

Day 6 — Preface — Mexico Leg


I feel a need to preface this next segment by stating that different travelers' experiences in Mexico seem to be, well, different.

We have all heard the horror stories, and we've also heard from plenty of folks who had no difficulties whatsoever. This was our very first time in Mexico, and our experience was somewhere in between the two. And all I can say for sure, is that your experience will also be different.

Given that, I will venture a few general remarks:

1. Based on input from many folks more experienced than I, things are generally better now than they were in the "bad old days."

2. We were not there to visit Mexico, we spent very little time in Mexico, and we stuck to the major routes and made no side trips (well, no deliberate side-trips ;-). This limited our exposure: less time and fewer miles means less exposure to chance. At the other extreme, if one were to spend a year driving all over Mexico, or one made many trips through Mexico, one would eventually wind up with a horror story. Or the USA or even Canada probably.

3. We did not travel solo and, although female, we are both quite tall — taller than most Mexican men — and more-or-less middle aged. There were several minor "events" which might have gone differently had there been just one of us, or had we been, say, young men or petit young women.

4. We generally project a polite, friendly, accommodating demeanor. When required we can be firm to the point of stubborn. We are very capable of faking ignorance and even stupidity (sometimes we're not even faking ;-), and are not embarrassed to do so when called for. We understand just a little Spanish, but when convenient we understand no Spanish at all. As a last resort, we are able to become angry and even physical. Except for that last item, we used all the above on our journey through Mexico. Openness and attitude are key.

5. We are both very practiced, alert drivers, and not at all timid. Timid and hesitant do not work in Mexico (or Belize, for that matter). We quickly adopted a driving style based on observation of the drivers around us. As a result we did things and drove in ways we would never even consider in the States. We got crappy gas mileage. But within the Mexican context, we did not take undue risks. Had we driven by American rules and etiquette, we would have been at greater risk.

6. There were several times when safe passage meant applying the unwavering attention of both pilot and copilot for extended stretches. Another reason not to go it solo.

7. We had two sets of maps and Sanborn's guides and all were inaccurate and out-of-date. One of the best, newest highways we drove didn't exist. We often used both maps and the guides to sort things out. If I find an accurate, up-to-date map or road guide I'll let you know. Ditto for you?

8. We never really got lost, but we were "temporarily misplaced" on many occasions. The only real angst I personally experienced was when I let this get to me. The trick to keeping your misplacements temporary is to (a) halt the minute you experience doubt; (b) double-back and re-cross and re-re-cross intersections until you've seen all possible signage (this solved the problem in more than half the instances); (c) ask someone who has real knowledge — cops and taxi drivers are my favorite; (d) be creative in a Mexican way -- we got unmisplaced by taking dirt back alleys, driving in circles on purpose, going up a one-way street the wrong way (the cop we asked said to!), and entering a controlled access road via the off-ramp when there was no on-ramp. And backtracking, backtracking, backtracking — DO NOT keep going if you don't know where you are — you might actually get lost. You too will become temporarily misplaced multiple times — have fun — be Mexican about it — get into it! ;-)

9. We went against the common advice (e.g., night driving) at several points, but did so with care and judgment. Just because we did something doesn't mean you should follow blindly in our tire-tracks. Use your best care and judgment.


P.S. Yes, don't get your knickers in a knot, the actual Mexican segment is coming up next. Really. Trust me. ;-)