Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Letter to the Gypsies.

By Zach Watson

Editor's note: This corresponds with Alex's Thank You Blog below.

Those were our days, the days on the bus. I think back, now that it has been two months for me without bus, and I think about how incredible it all really was, how those stories will never be matched. Is there a way to ever top it? I think the answer is no, not in the way we did it. No mattter how much we struggled with it, we invented it. It was our moment. And the best part was sharing it.

The bus really started with just A&A and I on those streets of Quito, yes, but it didn't become the bus until the others rode it. I remember sitting with Alex and Alaena in the Centro Del Mundo Hostel at the infamous rum night and saying to the other travelers who sat around drinking, almost as an announcement, that we were buying a bus. In that moment, with the confused stares from the audience, I knew that what we were doing was different. It snowballed then after that, especially after we actually bought it. And we were never alone, even when the bus was broken last summer.

The bus inspired something in Matthias and Mike. They believed in it. They waited for us to figure it all out for a month while they could have been traveling, hooking up with chicks, and drinking beer. I know after they read this, they will say that they wouldn't have done it any other way (and that they still got to hook up with chicks and drink beer.) And I know they wouldn't have. They were just as much a part of it by that point as we were. But it meant a lot to me and A&A to have their never-ending support. Because in those days we really needed it, and we at least knew that two people were just as stupid as we were. Thank you guys for waiting, I told you it would be worth it. haha. Thank you guys for believing in the bus the way you did, unconditionally.

And while we waited. A&A were the real heroes. Trekking back and forth from Quito to Santo Domingo, test driving the bus around Ecuador, getting matriculas and number plates. Alaena with non-stop phone calls to Ivan and late night karaoke parties. You guys were the best. Really I think there might be something wrong with you.

Who does what you did? No one. No one goes to borders and bribes the guards so they can have more time to get a number plate for their broken bus. No one goes illegally across another border to find a cabezota for their broken bus in the backseat of some strange Ecuadorian's car. You guys were the operational nerve center of the bus, the bleeding heart. As much as Alex isn't a bleeding heart in any sense of the idiom, his heart bled for that bus. That made me smile to write. Thank you both for changing my life.

I feel like I am making a speech at a wedding...anyway...

Tom, thank you for supporting us when we needed beers those days in Quito and for your always appreciated words of wisdom. Oh yeah, sorry for bumming cigarettes off you. Thank God I quit. Please, Tom, write me a fucking email. I know you are in the normal world now, but even in the normal world people return emails within 3 months.

Marta,thank you for making me a happy man on three different occasions in South America. I know you dreamed of the Gypsy Train while your nose was buried deep in quantum mechanics, and I know that every second you could have been there, you were with me and even when you weren't you were. Plus, I don't know how to be alone.

Monkey, where the hell are you? Thanks for being a good dog and for pleasing Matthias sexually when he needed it.

T and B you rode bus. you love bus. you were bus. bus was you. I miss you.

Ben and Jake it's too bad you couldn't have bought the bus in Ushuaia that would have been a fairy tale ending to know that the bus would have kept going. Good Luck anyway. Jake I added your picture.

To the gypsies I haven't mentioned, Andrew, Lucas, Tor, Tabitha, CC Boom Boom, Nick, Kate, Karen, Kerry, Hilla, Charlie, Cesar, Mike O’Sullivan, Huburtus, Kate Weatherbee, Bacci, Roa, Hannah, Heather, Bianca, Carla, Chelsea, Johnny, THANK YOU!! Without the gypsy donations, we wouldn't have been able to move.

Also thank you Mom and Darrell and Dad and the Ginger and Brittany Watson for cutting my hair before I left. And Thank You to the other parents of the Gypsy Train who without you giving life to us and providing us with such great nurture we couldn't have realized the Great American Dream.

I don't want to forget to thank you, all of those farmers who let us sleep on their farms, those people who warned us when we needed to be warned, the mechanics, those helpful strangers in passing, and the farmer who gave us the fresh milk that time. Just to let you know, I chilled it later and ate cookies with it. Thank you.

If I have forgotten anyone...Alex and I did this together, so if I hadn't mentioned someone, it is because he had in his. And if he hadn't, then blame him.

A Retrospective Gypsy

By Alex Mehlin

Travelling without The Gypsy Train is odd. I have become so accustom to the dizzyingly dynamic day- to-day events of the bus it is hard to adjust to a more passive travel experience. It seems that without the bus travelling is simplified down to restaurants, hostels and tours.

It’s a far more relaxing existence, but I’m not sure that the relaxation is for me. I miss the bus, at the same time I am enjoying the comforts and leisure being an average tourist allows. My new found free time has allowed me to think back on The Gypsy Train and how wonderful it was.

I would have to say there were a couple of things that made the Gypsy Train so hard to let go of; the nightly dining experience, the freedom to roam and the sociology of the bus.

The first thing that people would always mention when they joined the bus was the food. It took me till now to understand what they really meant. Going out to eat is one of the best parts of travelling. However, this day to day adventure into unknown eateries can take their toll. Many times you are surprised with amazing food but most of the time it is lacking something. Mike coined it best when he said, “it needs sex”. It seems funny to prefer a meal by headlamp to one under a roof and with service, but dinners on The Gypsy Train had SEX. The ingredients are simple and we managed to perfect it night after night; caring cooks, fresh ingredients, cocktails and warm conversation.

Travelling without the bus means using public transportation. This has been the hardest adjustment for me. It is the lack of control, there was something so special about looking at a map and deciding where we were and where we were heading. Being a passenger allows access to places the bus could never go, time to read, naps and is far less stressful. However, it comes with; cramped conditions, bad music, time tables and sketchy drivers.

The bus did something funny to people. Everyone lets loose when they travel its part of the beauty of it, but the Gypsy Train did something more. Looking at photos a transformation takes place in each person. The longer the person stayed on the bus the more they developed a Gypsy persona. When we walk into a bar I now feel a lack of presence without the Gypsy entourage, it’s just not as exciting to go out. Because of these alter egos, we developed roles and rules of the bus. Being back in the real world means living by the rules of normal society; this takes getting use to but once comfortably adapted it is refreshing.

For Alaena and me our lives now orbit tours and meeting up with friends. Much of the time I felt like the bus was waiting for us in a dindgy garage awaiting a joyfuly reunion.

Our most recent activity took us seven days into the Cordillera Real. As we passed over 5000 meter passes and dropped down into glaciated valleys, I slowly adjusted to life without the bus. Following a guide and taking public transport finaly broke me from the Gypsy Train. The break was not pretty and resulted in a childish temper tantrum. When I came out of my episode I was humbled and had a greater appreciation for the accumulation of effort and the help we needed to make the last year so extraordinary.

Thank you to everyone that helped to make our dream road trip a reality.

Our families, thank you for all your; financial help, emails, doing taxes and other various paper work, sending much need packages, constant love and for being our biggest fans. I would especially like to thank our parents...Pam Mehlin, Tim Bateman, Bill Watson, Tom Mehlin, Lori Taylor, Al Czeck, Kelly McNet and Michael Redecker.

Tio Tom, for believing in us when we were just getting off the ground and always having a beers ready and something positive to tell us when times got hard.

Matthias and Mike. I’m not sure who was on the bus longer, but thank you both for your daily contributions and sticking around when times got hard you guys kept us going.

Everyone who rode and loved the bus, without you The Gypsy Train would have died as an idea: Andrew, Lucas, Matthias, Tom, Tor, Monkey, Tabitha, CC Boom Boom, Nick, Marta, Kate, Mike, Teagan, Bernadette, Karren, Kerry, Hilla, Charlie, Cesar, Mike O’, Huburtus, Kate, Botchi, Ben, Jake, Roa, Hannah, Heather, Bianca, Carla, Chelsea, Jonny, Vicky, Zoe and Emily.

I would also like to thank a few people who helped us along the way; Ivan our trusty mechanic in Santo Domingo, The Grinn House, Edwin, every tire guy who miraculously appeared and all the mechanics who did not rip us off.

We would have never gotten the blog rolling without you the readers. Thank you for your interest in our adventure. It was inspiring to see how many people actually read what we had to say!

Most of all without the heart, dedication and fearless financial input, The Gypsy Train would have never come to fruition. So, thank you Alaena and Zach. You guys are amazing friends and I’m still buzzing off the year we lived on the whims of South America’s highways.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The selling of The Gypsy Train

By Alex Mehlin

I bumped into a van when pulling the bus out of the parking lot in Potosi, Bolivia. The damage was minor but the guy managed to get 340 Bolivianos out of us. I was pissed at myself for the accident. Alaena and I drove 200 km to Sucre. The mood was not right, I didn’t really believe it was going to be our last long distance drive in the bus. I guess I should have cherished it a bit more.

We pulled into Sucre, the white city and after getting lost amongst the endless one-way streets of the Spanish colonial town, we finally found a car wash who allowed us to park for the night. We cleaned the interior while the fat man and his balaclava wearing children cleaned the outside. We parked the sparkling bus and promised to return in the morning.

It was my and Zach´s one year anniversary being in South America. Alaena and I watched a movie on her laptop like we had done so many nights before on the bus. We had a couple of beers and passed out.

We awoke before the sun and walked up the hill to the bus. We pulled out of the parking lot and drove to the car market. Only there was no market, it was just a blank street. A local informed us that it only took place on Saturday.

The next morning we returned after spending our last night ever sleeping on the bus under the street lights.

A small man greeted us, I spoke to him the best I could while Alaena made last minute adjustments to the bus. He assured me that many people came to the market and we would sell the bus today. It was hard to truly believe him, I guess I didn’t really want to.

The sun pierced through the window, outside short fat women set up stands selling SalteƱas, sweet pastries filled with meat or cheese and Papa Rellenas, deep fried mashed potatoes filled with meat. We got our first visitor as the street began to fill with cars.

For the next 8 hours Alaena answered these same questions.

A small man, generally missing multiple teeth would approach the window and yell in. “How much,” Alaena would respond, “6 thousand”. He would smile, thinking this was very cheap and we must be very stupid.

“What year”, -1998.

“What type of motor” - 3500 diesel.

He would respond,” oh that’s small.” We were after all very stupid gringos.

Then the kicker question would arise. “Do you have Bolivian Papers?” This took more explaining, no we did not have the papers, we were selling the bus illegally. The buyer would take full responsibility for the legal aspect of having the bus. This is why we were asking only $6000.

At this point most potential buyers would just walk off. A few would tell us the ways that they could illegally operate the bus making it a good, but risky purchase for them.

One, make duplicate copies of the same bus in a different city and apply them to our bus. Two busses having the same papers. If discovered by the police the bus would be seized.

Two, buy a shitty bus legally and transfer all the numbers and papers illegally to
the good bus.

Three, bribe officials until the bus was legit, this would cost $4000.

Four, sell it off as parts.

Those that stuck around would ask more questions. Why would we take the seats out and put a bed in? They also questioned why we would want to hang so much stuff on the roof?

They then would make a ridiculous offer or question whether we would go down and declare they would come back later. One man even tried to trade us Artisan goods, like sweaters for the bus. At one point he told Alaena to take down the for sale sign because he was going to buy it with colorful pants and sweaters.

This went on for what seemed like years. Towards the end of the day Alaena´s patience was wearing thin. I tried to help her by getting her some chocolate but she was going to need more than just chocolate to keep up with the barrage of questioning.

A small business lady approached the bus, she wanted it for parts, she offered $4000 no more. Alaena looked like she was considering. Could we sell The Gypsy Train off as junk? The bus that brought us to all those amazing places in a million pieces scattered around Bolivia, it was hard to swallow.

We passed on the offer but not before giving her our number with instructions to call on Monday.

The market began to wind down. Two very young men entered the bus. They were ecstatic about the bus. One was a mechanic and the other was a bus driver who owned a beat up bus. Option TWO was now in play.

They offered $5000 on Monday. Just as we were discussing the prospect of sale, a couple who earlier were looking at the bus showed up. They offered us $5000 on the spot.

We had the makings for a bid off.

Alaena asked the young men if they were serious. They kind of blushed and walked off the bus. We were left with the couple. Soon the commotion attracted more people. The artisan man was now offering $5500 but we could hardly take him seriously.

The couple offered to take us to their house, they had a garage and spare room. We could stay there until Monday when we could go to a lawyer and send off the money to a secure location.

In the commotion and relief to have a real serious buyer we took the offer. I pulled into the stop and go traffic and drove out of the market with the couple. I stopped and Willy took the wheel. It was my last drive.

Willy maneuvered the bus with skill. He had previously been a bus owner, driving was in his blood. We entered their massive constructed brick complex. Dora showed us our room and made us coffee and toasties. A delicacy she picked up two years prior when her and Willy left their children in Bolivia and moved to Spain to work in rich people’s homes. They saved every Euro and used the money to build their home and I presume to buy our bus.

It was very weird staying with them. After coffee Dora instructed us to go rest in our room. It was 7 o´clock and we were hardly tired. We spent the next 3 hours watching movies on the laptop and fell asleep. I questioned whether the bus would be there in the morning.

The sun came up and we ate more toasties with Dora. We escaped her home for the city for the day, but not before checking on the bus.

We came back late, went to our room and slept.

In the morning we cleaned out the bus. Collected all our belonging and put what we did not want in a pile for Dora to buy. She purchased; blankets, the kitchen, the chairs, the shovel, old camping equipment and other various goods for 300 Bolivianos.

The four of us, Alaena, Dora, Willy and I, got in their 21 year-old son´s car and he drove us to the lawyers. There they gave Alaena and I $5000 in crisp 100 dollar bills. For the second time in a year I was running around a South American city with way too much money in my hand. We found a safe outlet and got rid of it while Dora and Willy waited for the lawyer. The paper work was not to be. We had to wait until morning.

At 9 a.m. sharp Willy phoned us and we met him at the law office. The paper work was completed. It stated that I sold the bus to Willy and he bought it from me. I signed it and we went to the notary. He took my thumb print and Willy´s. We signed again and made it official. Willy and I shook hands, Alaena and Willy shook hands. We parted with an Adios. Willy seemed happy and we were happy to have the process over.

Alaena and I proceeded to get far too drunk and went to the mercado central for dinner. The next day we had a proper celebration at the finest French restaurant in town, it cost us $35.

Not having the bus has not hit me yet. I know it will when we board our first public transportation bound for La Paz. Right now it kind of feels like the bus is safely parked waiting for us to be tired of the city. I know deep down that day long drives and the thrill of having no idea where we will end up is over, but in that same deep dark hole I know that it was time.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Life after...

So I started a depressingly funny new blog about life after the Gypsy

It's under my pseudonym, Johnathan Tweed, because I didn't want anybody to think that this was how I actually thought.

But you know, fans, that it is me, Zach W. Watson, behind the English facade.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bienvenidos Bolivia

By Alex Mehlin

We successfully stamped out of Argentina. We walked five meters to the left to the Bolivian vehicle crossing guard. I mechanically produced our documents while Alaena sweat talked the guard through a warm smile.

He glanced up through his bifocals. Seguro? I reached into the folder and produced our tried and true international driving insurance. He scrutinized it as if it were a ticking bomb.

Without raising his head, he informed us that the folded piece of paper did not specify that the insurance was indeed for Bolivia. I looked across the boarder. Donkeys pulled loads of good illegally passing between countries, people chewed on coca leaves, cars not fit for a demolition derby sped down dirt roads. There was no chance in hell any insurance company would ever pay out for an incident occurring in Bolivia.

Alaena argued with the stubborn man. ¨our insurance has worked in Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Are you telling me that Bolivia is not in South America?¨ He did not like this and finished the argument stating that we would not pass into Bolivia without insurance that specified Bolivian coverage.

We were forced illegally back into Argentina. We returned 30 minuets later and 180 peso the poorer with a print out of an insurance statement declaring that we owned insurance for the Gypsy Train. The guard once again did not look up, he stamped our paper and we were allowed to pass.

The ancient floor board creaked under our feet, cracked glass windows sheltered the tellers from unwanted saliva, a sign hung on the wall stating that children are not objects and should not be sold. We stood in line watching every South American get stamped through with little effort and extreme speed.

In order to expatiate the process Alaena bypassed the line and procured a document of entry. She filled it in and qued up. Her time came and she stepped up to the cracked window. ¨Where did you get this paper?¨ The boarder guard, officially sporting track pants and a leather jacket, inquired. ¨You did not get it from me, take this one and fill it out.¨ He gave her the exact same paper and sent her to the back of the line.

I stepped up next. Bolivians hate Americans and I did not expect much. What I received was far from welcoming. I was asked a serious of questions outlining my birth city, occupation, if I ever worked for the government and if I had family who did. I must have passed the inquisition because I was given a piece of paper outlining the very questions I just answered. I filled it out and stood in line. At the window I was told I would need to produce $135 USD and no other currency would be accepted. Since I was just coming from Argentina I was forced to exchange my peso for dollars at a painful rate. For this exercise I was allowed to enter Bolivia, however not trusting the guard holding my passport hostage, Alaena for the second time in a day ran illegally into a foreign country.

She returned safely with the money. I paid and was rewarded a 90 day vias once a year for the rest of my life into Bolivia.

We drove back into the third world.

At the gas station we were forced to pay double the diesel prices because of a law prohibiting sale of diesel to foreigners within 200km of the boarder at the national price.

At the gas station I met my first real Bolivian. We talked and he told me that the road to Uyuni was very long, however his crooked gold smile proudly informed me the first 90 km were newly paved. We shook hands and he wished us safe travels, warning me never to drive at night.

Off into Bolivia we drove. The world outside the Gypsy Train filled with dust and gravel. The country side looked like the Wild West only the renegades to the likes of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, have now traded their stallions for 4x4 Toyotas.

No longer did signs point the direction to the next town or warn of approaching danger. There were no longer any fences marking private property and llamas roamed freely. Quechua women huddled next to the side of the road watching the world go bye and we occasionally picked up kids hitching to school 30 km from home.

Once again we were away from all the comforts of the first world, like an unwanted but highly needed cold shower if felt refreshing.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Bus Magic

By Alex Mehlin

Our bags had just been stolen. Our bus was filled with emerging Gypsies. Horns honked as I glimpsed back, dangerously weaving through traffic while watching Zach’s awkwardly skinny body disappear in the morning smog.

We drove out of Mendoza, a new chapter was underway.

It did not start great. I watched as the temperature gage climbed, it gave me the far too familiar sour feeling in my gut that has been recurring ever since our first major break down in Ecuador. I knew what was needed to be done but we had new people onboard and I was embarrassed to share with them that the bus was not perfect.

A truck sped past, honking and pointing at the roof-rack. It was the perfect alibi for pulling over. I quickly took the first off ramp. My muscle memory went to work; lift the sheep skin, open the engine bay, take off the radiator cap, listen in disgust and confusion as the engine spits and gargles fluids, pump by hand the radiator hose, replace the radiator cap, turn on the engine and watch the temperature drop. I climbed up on the roof-rack. Nothing was wrong so we got back on the road.

We drove from the land of roaming Gauchos into the vast wilderness filled by obscure towns dotting the map of Northwest Argentina. Seemingly ancient adobe buildings crumbled. Built around ancient Spanish colonial towns dating back to the 1600s, when North-western Argentina held all the wealth and Buenos Aires was little more than a fort, the towns now are quiet outposts.

Sunset at Puente del Inca

Our emerging Gypsies watched out the window as the mountains sped past. They gave way to deep canyons, monster cacti, snow capped peaks, red sandstone cliffs, dried salt lakes and empty valleys. Each day lead us to a new activity, star gazing, bush whacking up mountains, exploring slot canyons, drinking under the starts around roaring campfires and admiring outlandish rock formations.

Valle de la Luna

It was odd at first, with only Alaena and I being the sole remaining Original Gypsies. But as the days went by our cult like group behaviour began to morph our companions into true Gypsies. No longer did the girls climb onto the roof for clean clothes. Jonny gave up shaving and pondered the possibility for future facial hair. Structured camping became a luxury as did showers. We camped on the side of roads and everyone grew angry with outlandish tourist prices. I watched the metamorphism take place from my driver’s seat, an object I’m sure has twisted my back and ass so they perfectly line up to its torturous metal frame.

Jonny's lunch outside of Tafi de Valle at 3800 meters

The bus is like learning to drink beer, at first it is hard to digest and get down, but soon you learn to love it and you can’t think of life before it. It has forced three people to sell their cars, two people to deliberately miss flights home, it convinced one brave soul to buy a motorcycle without even having any idea how to ride, it has made love blossom, it has convinced people to stay on even though they have very limited travel time, it has made people fly around the world just for a short stint and most of all it has made everyone who has stepped foot on it fall in love.

I never expected that when we bought the bus it would consume so much of my life and the lives of all the people who have ridden on it. Every time we think it has been over somehow the bus has produced a way or reason for us to push forward.

Alaena and I have only a little time left on our visas for Argentina. From there we will drive into the poorest and arguably most corrupt country in South America. A country home to the “death rode”, a place where drinking and driving just became illegal to the disgust of bus drivers and truck drivers alike and the world’s largest supplier of cocaine.

We always said we were not going to even attempt Bolivia, but as always it seems the bus has a plan and we are only along for the ride.