The Start

sea-1804591_1280

Once it became clear that there was no way I could persuade Margaret to see the world on two wheels – she thought me asking her to swap the beautiful kitchen in her home for a camping stove was one sacrifice too many – it was time to look at options. Margaret’s late husband was French and she was keen to go back to France to visit the French family. That sounded like a good idea, we could start in France and make our way around Europe. The only question was, how would we do this? A motorhome sounded like it would be perfect for us.

 

As neither of us had an EU passport and we did not have an EU address, we could not buy a motorhome in Europe. We looked at renting a motorhome but that proved to be far too expensive. This was a problem that all non-EU citizens faced and there must be some way around it. There was, we found a company in Amsterdam that would buy the motorhome of our choice on our behalf and then enter into a lease agreement with us. They would even buy the motorhome back from us at the end of our trip – at a hugely discounted price of course. Problem solved.

We spent many hours working on a route through Europe and dealing with the restrictions that Margaret’s South African passport placed on us.

 

Margaret could get a Schengen visa and we could probably get her a six month visa if we asked really nicely and proved that she would actually leave the Schengen area at the end of our trip. Peter did not have this problem as his New Zealand passport allowed him to move around the Schengen area without too many restrictions.

 

The only problem was the 90 in 180 day rule. Even though the visa was for six months, she would only be allowed to stay in the Schengen area for 90 days at a time. Again, this was a problem that all non EU-citizens faced, how did they get around it? The solution was quite simple really, spend 90 days in the Schengen area and then go to Morocco or Turkey for 90 days and then apply for another 6 month visa from Morocco or Turkey and go back to the Schengen area. We could do this indefinitely. Problem solved, or so we thought.

motorhome-820593_1280

We popped into our travel agent to get some quotes for the air tickets to Amsterdam and casually mentioned our plan to her. There was no problem with our plan but, Margaret could not apply for a Schengen visa from Morocco or Turkey.

 

We would have to come back to South Africa to apply for each Schengen visa. That certainly complicated matters. Where would we leave the motorhome? Where would we stay when we went back to South Africa to apply for the Schengen visa and, more importantly, could we afford it? Suddenly traveling through Europe in a motorhome didn’t seem like a feasible option.

 

What else could we do? How about we see the USA in a motorhome? That sounded like a good idea but how would we do this? We again could not buy a motorhome in the USA because neither of us had an American passport or an address in the USA. We found an organization in the USA that could help us. Because Peter had a New Zealand passport we could get an address in the USA through the Escapees RV Club. There is some kind of reciprocal agreement between the USA and New Zealand governments. The address is no more than a post box in Texas but we could use this address to buy vehicles anywhere in the USA. They would also act as a mail service for us.

It was back to the drawing board. Where would we buy the motorhome and where would we start the trip? The USA is after all a rather big place. In doing the research into motorhomes in the USA we came across PPL Motor Homes, a RV (the American’s refer to motorhomes as RV’s) consignment dealer in Houston, Texas. Their website is fantastic and allowed us to get a fairly good idea of what was available in our price range. The upside to traveling in a motorhome in the USA was that we could afford a much bigger motorhome. In Europe most motorhomes are under 6 meters (about 20 feet) in length - once you go over 6 meters the toll road fees become very expensive - but in the USA we could have a much bigger motorhome.  The Americans certainly know how to build motorhomes!

 

We decided to start the trip in Los Angeles, California. We would buy a RV in Los Angeles and then make the trip up as we went. We both had 6 month visas for the USA and Margaret had a 6 month visa for Canada. We arrived in Los Angeles in June 2013 and set about looking for a RV. It soon became very clear that, whilst there where a great number of RV’s for sale in Los Angeles, they were way beyond our price range.

We knew that PPL Motor Homes had a large selection of RV’s in our price range and we flew to Houston in Texas. After 5 days of looking at RV’s on PPL’s lot we found what we were looking for. A 2000 34’ Fleetwood Flair Motor Home. It had everything we were looking for, was in great condition and a price we could afford. The question of what this lifestyle costs comes up over and over again on the various travel forums. Those looking to adopt this lifestyle are trying to find out if they can afford it and what they are getting themselves into. It was certainly a question that we wrestled with. We have decided that we will disclose our expenses and you can go to our Costs page to see what the RV cost us.

Peter had never driven anything larger than a sedan but in terms of USA law was allowed to drive the RV on his motor vehicle license. He learnt to drive the RV in Houston on our test drive of the Fleetwood Flair. He sat in the captains chair (I kid you not, that’s what they call the driver’s seat in a RV), Margaret sat in the co-captains chair and the salesman stood in the middle between us instructing Peter on how to drive the RV.  And so it was we became the captains of a RV in the USA.

 

We toured the USA (and parts of Canada) from June 2013 through to June 2016 and also spent three months in Mexico in 2015 but we did not take the RV into Mexico. We toured Mexico in our car and spent just over two months house sitting in Merida. We did not spend the entire time touring in the RV as Peter did some work during this time and we also traveled to New Zealand and Australia to see our children. We did three big trips in the RV during this period and will mention each separately. The costs for each trip are shown separately on the Costs page.

RV 2

The First RV Trip

How does everything work?
How does everything work?

There was much to learn. Neither of us had been big campers and Peter is certainly not mechanically minded and we had absolutely no idea how the various systems worked and what we needed to do. Looking back, we should have done far more research into RV’s and the RV lifestyle before we bought one. There was shore power, 12 volt power, a propane tank, a generator, a grey tank, a black tank, a fresh water tank, satellite TV and a host of other smaller systems. How did all this stuff work? We learnt really quickly, made some mistakes, but figured it out. To complicate matters, we had to drive on the wrong side of the road and at one point were in 19 lanes of traffic in the RV in Houston. Fortunately the Escapees RV Club have a fantastic membership and we turned to them often for help and support.

 

Summer in Texas is incredibly hot and we wanted nothing more than to get out of Texas. As with all older RV’s, ours had some issues that had to be resolved. The RV had been standing on the lot for a while and, as we subsequently learnt, RV’s don’t like being in storage – the common description is ‘lot rot’. While waiting for the necessary parts we explored Texas.

Needless to say, we often were the only campers in the park, everyone else was north where it was much cooler. We saw most of Texas – Houston, Galveston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Big Bend National Park – by the time all the repairs where done and then we headed west at the end of August. Texas is big, really big (696,200 square km to be exact), with very little between the towns and cities.

 

One of the things we discovered really quickly is that the RV is great to live in but without a car to get around, the ability to go places is limited. Some of the larger American cities have a decent public transport system but most do not. We did a great deal of walking which was great for our waistlines. From Texas we traveled through New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada (you bet we stopped at Las Vegas!) to California. Peter had managed to get some work in South Africa and we had to be in SA at the beginning of November.

 

Thursday 12 September 2013 is a day that will forever be etched in our memories.

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas
The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

We had arranged for our mail to be forwarded to Lakewood in New Mexico and planned to stay at The Ranch (an Escapees RV Park in Lakewood) until our mail arrived. We arrived at The Ranch on Tuesday and expected our mail to arrive on Friday or Saturday. When we arrived at The Ranch, Margaret asked if we could have a camp site with a tree – Margaret loves to be surrounded by trees. There was only one site available in the middle of the park with a tree, it really was an excuse for a tree, but it was a tree and it would do.

 

It is standard practice at these parks to sound an alarm in the event of an emergency and that usually requires everyone to meet at the community centre. On Thursday morning at about 6am we were awoken with the sound of a very loud alarm coming from the community centre. Peter opened the blind, could see nothing out of the ordinary and decided it was probably a false alarm. The alarm sounded again a short while later. Did they know what time it was? We were still sleeping for goodness sake and please could someone sort out the faulty alarm.

 

A few minutes later there was someone banging at our RV door in a state of panic.

 

There had been heavy rains up north and The Ranch was now completely surrounded by floodwater – there was no way in or out of the park. That certainly got our attention! We scrambled to the community centre to find that the situation was really serious. Not only was the park cut off from the rest of the world by floodwater but there was a lot of water on the way and they expected the park to be completely flooded in a few hours.

 

Watching the emergency services spring into action was something to behold. Within an hour the local Sheriff, the City Police, State Troopers and The National Guard where on site. The big helicopters were busy up north and we would have to be evacuated with the only helicopter they had available, a small one that could only take three passengers at a time. Fortunately we only had to be evacuated about a mile and they could then take us by bus to the emergency centre from there. Over the next few hours the emergency services worked like troopers to evacuate us – three at a time.

 

Once we cleared the floodwaters there were buses waiting to take us to a school where the Red Cross were waiting for us. Stretcher beds, food, drinks, snacks – it was all there waiting for us and the State Governor had appointed a person to take care of us until the emergency was over. We had never seen anything so well organised. We got separated during the evacuation which didn’t do much for our stress levels. On day three even the local Walmart got involved, they arrived with a supply of brand new clothing. We made the news on the local and national TV stations and for a minutes The Ranch was famous.

 

We spent two nights away from the RV Park while we waited for the floodwaters to subside.  Fortunately the floodwater was not as bad as expected and only a few RV’s were damaged. The park infrastructure was badly damaged and we had to move our RV from the park as soon as the road was clear. We fortunately suffered no damage to our RV due to the fact that we were in the middle of the park, had we been on a site at the end of the park it would have been a very different story indeed. The tree, even though really an excuse for a tree, had saved us a lot of trouble.

 

KOB News covered the evacuation and we managed to get a copy of the news coverage and permission to include the news coverage on our website. The video of the news coverage shows Margaret being helped from the helicopter and can be seen on  our Videos page.

 

Cleaning the RV and getting it ready for storage in Los Angeles was a sad time indeed but we would be back. That first trip lasted four months and covered a distance of 5 440 miles (8 704 km) and really gave us an appreciation for just how big the USA is.

The Second RV Trip

It had long been a dream of Peter’s to go to Alaska. We arrived back in Los Angeles at the beginning of January 2014 with the intention of going to Alaska. It was however winter in the USA and RV’s are no place to live in when it’s cold. The insulation is poor and there is a real danger of the pipes freezing if the temperature plummets. Plastic pipes are no match for freezing water and the damage to the water pipes, and our bank balance, would be substantial if a pipe burst. But first we would have to get the RV out of storage.

 

Next we bought a car to tow behind the RV. We really wanted to see more of the USA without always having to take the RV or walk. We bought a 2005 Honda CR-V and had a tow bar installed on the RV. Peter had to learn to drive the RV all over again – now the length of both vehicles when hooked up was 50 feet (15 metres).

 

We headed for San Diego and parked ourselves at Mission Bay RV Park. It was paradise, the days were warm and the nights a little cool but still enjoyable.

 

It is easy to see why so many, including the homeless war veterans, are attracted to San Diego. We knew we could not leave for Alaska until the beginning of May at the earliest but there was much to do to get ready for the trip. We studied the Traveler’s guide To Alaskan Camping by Mike and Terri Church and The MILEPOST which turned out to be probably the most valuable book on the trip.

 

We stayed in San Diego a little longer than anticipated as Peter was offered some work in the Middle East and Margaret stayed in the RV in San Diego while he did some work for a change. It is a long way from San Diego just to get to Alaska, California is a pretty big State on its own and then we would still have to get through Oregon and Washington before we got to British Columbia, Alberta and the Yukon in Canada which separate Alaska from the lower 48 States.

 

Before we left Peter wondered if he would see a place in Alaska that would just be so beautiful that it took his breath away. We have seen places in other parts of the world that have done that to us and it is indeed a special moment when that happens.

Coronado 045
San Manuel Casino 2

It was a long drive up the Interstate 5 highway from San Diego to the Canadian Border, the highway measures 1 382 miles (2 211km) from end to end and most of it is pretty boring. One of our favourite places to free camp (referred to as boondocking in the USA) is Casinos. Many of the Casinos encourage RV’ers to free camp on their premises and very often have a dedicated area for the RV's. We camped at a few Casinos on the way up.

 

Seattle in Washington must rank as one of our favourite American cities. With the Space Needle Tower, the Boeing factory, the snow covered mountains, the lovely market and the site of the first Starbucks Coffee Shop, it was a lovely place to stop for a few days. The Pike Place Fish Company is world famous for the throwing of the fish and there is a great Youtube video by Hudstone 420 on this rather unique custom.

 

Neither of us had been to Canada before and we were looking forward to seeing British Columbia, Alberta and the Yukon on our way through Canada. For a change the border crossing was quick and painless. With Margaret’s passport we normally spend at least a few hours dealing with the authorities at border crossings. Peter never has this problem on his own with his New Zealand passport but the moment the authorities see Margaret’s South African passport they always take both passports and check every entry and exit date to make sure we have not breached our visa conditions.

seattle-2347580_1280
Margaret at Starbucks
seattle-1619505_1280
seattle-2426382_1280

It was in Keremeos in British Columbia that we met Francie. We were looking for a place to stop for the night and had heard that there was a concrete slab from a demolished building that the town allowed to be used for overnight camping. Francie was already there when we arrived and had been there for quite some time.

 

Her story is remarkable. She had clearly been wealthy and mixed in high society. She had a nursing background and spoke of often flying around the country in private planes. There was no boasting, that was how she had lived. The she developed cancer and used almost every penny that she had to fight the disease. She was in remission but she was also almost broke. She now lived in an old RV that she paid $7 000 for and she got by on $500 a month. There was certainly nothing wrong with the RV, it was old but clean and had been well looked after and she certainly wasn’t starving. She spent the winter in Quartzsite, Arizona with thousands of other Snowbirds (Canadians fleeing the cold winter) and returned north when it got too hot in the desert.  There was no self-pity, just a remarkable lady who was making the best of the curved ball life had thrown at her.

 

Beautiful British Columbia certainly lived up to its name. From Banff National Park (in neighbouring Alberta) to the endless array of snowcapped mountains, the ride through this part of the world was amazing.

 

The road between Lake Louise and Jasper in Alberta is known as the Icefields Parkway and is, with good reason, regarded as one of the most scenic drives in the world. National Geographic Traveler magazine named this route as one of their 20 drives of a lifetime. We spent the night at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center and it must rank as one of the most beautiful spots we have ever camped in. The center is opposite the Columbia Icefield and, whilst we were on a parking lot (and paying for the privilege of doing so), the view from our RV was stunning.

Icefields Parkway 1
Canada 021
sign-1786009_1280
glacier-18648_1280

The Alaska Highway, often simply referred to as the ‘Alcan’ starts at Mile 0 in Dawson Creek in Canada and officially ends at Mile 1 422 some 96 miles from Fairbanks in Alaska although unofficially the end is at Fairbanks.

 

Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 for $7.2m when Russia desperately needed money and considered Alaska to be worthless. There had been some talk of building the highway when gold was discovered in 1890 but it was only after Japan attacked the USA Fleet in Pearl Harbor that the decision was made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to build the highway. The USA feared that Japan would attack Alaska and they had no way of defending the territory. It took 16 000 men (mostly soldiers) just nine months to build the highway at a cost of $138m. A remarkable achievement.

 

It was also our first encounter with permafrost. Permafrost is ground that has been frozen for a period of at least two years and very often much longer. The road is constructed over the permafrost but in the summer months the road surface heats up and melts the layer of ice beneath the road causing the road to essentially buckle and break up. There are very few vehicles in Alaska that do not have cracked windshields and we too would have one before we left Alaska.

 

The scenery on the highway is simply stunning and every turn in the road produced yet another spectacular view. Each town has its own Visitors Center and they are really well done with a detailed history of the area and informative videos.

 

From Fairbanks we made our way to Anchorage and then to Homer which is as far west as one can go by road. Every town has an airfield of some description, in winter it is the only way to get in and out of these towns. The trip through Denali National Park was beautiful with brown and black bears in full view of the bus and Mount McKinley putting on a magnificent display for us.

 

From Homer it was back to Anchorage and then southeast to Valdez. The oil from the trans-Alaska pipeline is loaded onto ships at Valdez. The pipeline has a diameter of 122cm and transports the oil a distance of 800 miles (1 287 km) from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.

 

Watching the ice break off the glaciers is a magical experience, there is normally a loud crack followed by a large mass of ice falling into the sea. These pieces of ice are typically thousands of years old and take some time to thaw making for a wonderful boat ride through them to get to the glacier and a place for the otters to sun bathe.

 

Getting back to Whitehorse in British Columbia was for us the end of the trip but we still had the drive back to Los Angeles in California. Peter had again managed to get some work back in South Africa which would also allow us to see our families again.

 

There are many who simply take a cruise through Alaska but they, in our opinion, miss out on some of the best that Alaska has to offer.

Signpost Forest at Watson Lake
Signpost Forest at Watson Lake
alaska-67304_1920
Car Iced Up
Glacier

The salmon in Alaska still talk of Margaret in hushed tones. During the summer months the salmon return to their spawning grounds and there are literally hundreds of thousands of salmon making their way through Alaska. The bears just love this time of year as they fatten up before they go into hibernation.

 

As we were traveling, there was a day when Margaret felt like some salmon for dinner. We searched the local supermarkets but could not find any fresh salmon for sale. Driving back to the campground we saw a sign pointing to fresh salmon for sale. Peter waited in the car while Margaret went to talk to the fishmonger. There was no shop, just a few large ice-boxes on the sidewalk under an umbrella. From the inside of the car Peter could see the lady pull a very large whole salmon out of the ice-box. As we were in a State Park campground we had limited hook-ups, we had power but we had no water or waste water hook-ups. This invariably means that we have to be careful how we use our fresh water and how we manage our waste water.

 

As Peter was sitting in the car watching the exchange between Margaret and the fishmonger he was thinking there would be no fish for dinner that evening. Margaret had never before filleted a fish, we were in the RV and one certainly cannot fillet a fish inside a RV (we would never get the smell out of the RV), we do not have a filleting knife, we have limited hook-ups and it is raining. He could not believe his eyes when he saw the fishmonger wrap the salmon and money change hands! What was Margaret thinking! Sure, we had seen this done many times at the towns we had passed through. We would go down to the harbor at the end of the day when the fishing vessels came in and watch them fillet the day's catch at special tables. The main requirements were knowing what to do, a good knife and lots of water. Margaret had none of these.

 

As Margaret got into the car, Peter made it very clear that he wanted nothing to do with what was about to happen to that salmon. When we got back to the RV, Margaret set up the outside table in the rain and proceed to fillet that fish like a professional. It was a sight to behold and one that sent a shiver through the spines of all the salmon in Alaska. Peter was happy to stand inside the RV out of the rain taking pictures. The salmon was really good and we had four meals from that fish.

Margaret with Fish 2
Margaret with Fish 1
Antler Arch, Fairbanks
Antler Arch, Fairbanks
Canada 050

Did Peter find that place that was so beautiful that it took his breath away? Yes he did, but it was in British Columbia and not Alaska.

 

We had stopped at Revelstoke for a few days to explore Banff National Park. The entire area is simply stunning and we had spent time exploring Johnston Canyon and viewing the numerous waterfalls from the catwalks. From Johnston Canyon we drove to Lake Louise. It was there that Peter lost his breath for a second. As we walked around the corner to the hotel the sight in front of us can only described as magnificent. The lake was still partly frozen but the thawed water was an emerald color with the glacier behind the lake framing the emerald water and white ice. It was a moment he will never forget.  

lake-louise-alberta-canada
lake-louise-1731375_1920

The Mexico Trip

We hadn’t planned on going to Mexico. Peter had some work to do in the USA and arrived in California in late April 2015. He had been offered another contract after that in the Middle East. Margaret thought she would take the opportunity to finally go and see her family in France. Peter’s contract in the USA was coming to an end at the end of May and there was suddenly a problem with his visa for Saudi Arabia. Margaret wasn’t doing much better. Getting a Schengen visa on a South African passport for an extended period can be very frustrating. Even though she had a letter of invitation from the family in France she was still having great difficulty getting the visa. Peter was in the USA and Margaret was in South Africa and all the plans had turned to custard.

 

We had been thinking about options for retirement. There is a big ex-pat retirement community in Mexico and another in Belize. Why not go to Mexico and see if it is an option, maybe even look at Belize at the same time. We looked on one of the house sitting sites and found a couple in Merida who were looking for house sitters. He was a retired engineer and she was a retired civil servant and they were going to Europe for two months and needed someone to look after the cat and the house. No problem, we’ll do it. And so Margaret flew out to join Peter in the USA for a trip to Mexico.

 

We had at one point considered taking the RV into Mexico but after reading Mike and Terri Church’s book Traveler’s Guide to Mexican Camping, decided not to. The roads in Mexico are not good and we did not want to risk damaging the RV or getting in an accident and having to deal with all the problems that would bring.

 

Rather than simply fly from Los Angeles to Merida in the Yucatan we decided that we would drive there and that way we would also have a car whilst there. We would drive down the west coast and back up the east coast of Mexico. The RV and car where in storage in San Bernadino in California and a quick trip to the storage facility had us mobile again.

 

It’s a long drive from Los Angeles to Merida – about 2 600 miles (4 160 km) and it would take us about a week to get there. It would also give us a snapshot of Mexico. On Saturday 23 May 2015 we drove the roughly 500 miles from San Bernadino to just north of the Nogales border crossing. The Church’s book indicated that this was one of the easier and less busy border crossings.  We purposely chose to cross the border on a Sunday morning in the hope that it would be less crowded and easier. It was. As neither of us speak Spanish, this was our first introduction to the language barrier. Fortunately some of the officials at the border post spoke English and it wasn’t long at all before we had all the necessary permits for ourselves and the car.

 

It didn’t take long after crossing the border to see the difference between the USA and Mexico. Mexico and Africa are, in our opinion, kindred spirits. Most of the buildings are in a state of disrepair, the roads are poorly maintained, rubbish is strewn everywhere and nobody cares.

SAM_0269
SAM_0103

After crossing the border we drove to Hermosillo, a distance of 175 miles (280 km). It was our introduction to the dreaded ‘Tope’ pronounced ‘toe-pay’, and toll roads. There are no speed traps in Mexico, there is no need for them. The country has literally thousands of these Topes which are in effect speed-bumps. There are however a few differences between speed-bumps in first world countries and Mexico’s Topes. The Topes may or may not be marked, will vary in height from small to huge and it is highly unlikely that there will be a warning sign. Hitting your first unnoticed Tope will cause your driving speed to decrease dramatically, it certainly did for us. Rumour has it that the Topes were introduced to stop the aggressive Mexican drivers killing women and children as they were crossing the street. It is also a place where all the street vendors gather to sell their wares. They have a captive audience. In most countries paying a toll fee entitles one to drive on a decent road, not so in Mexico. The toll fee simply entitles you to use a half decent road rather than a goat track.

 

The Church’s book had also made mention of the problem often experienced at the fuel pumps. The Pemex fuel stations are owned by the State and fuel is heavily subsidised. What isn’t regulated is the way the fuel is dispensed. Their favourite scam is to quickly open your fuel cap when you pull into the service station and not clear the previous fuel entry on the pump. That way you end up paying for your fuel and the fuel the previous vehicle had as well. Peter installed a locking filler cap and would get out and wait for the pump to be zeroed before unlocking the fuel cap. We also never asked them to simply fill the tank, their currency can be confusing and it is just too easy for them to short change you.  

 

The Americans make a great deal of how unsafe Mexico is and how corrupt the Police are. In all our travels through Mexico we never felt unsafe and the only time we got stopped by a Policeman it was to welcome us to Mexico. Maybe we were just lucky, there are many horror stories of travelers being mugged but that is mainly in the larger cities like Mexico City which we avoided. We think it has to do with being careful.

 

Most small Mexican cities are nondescript. The first, and only, nice city on our trip down the west coast (although we did not go as far as Acapulco) was Mazatlan. It is a holiday destination for wealthy Mexicans and very popular with Americans, many of whom are retirees.

 

All big Mexican cities are a nightmare to drive in and Guadalajara and Pueblo were no exceptions. The roads are narrow, the driver’s aggressive and the traffic horrendous. There is no way we could have driven the RV in these cities. Many of the Mexican driver’s have developed a really ingenious way of getting away with anything on the roads. They simply drive with all their vehicle flashers on. This allows them to stop in the middle of the road without warning, park anywhere, make a U-turn wherever they like and generally disregard anyone else on the road. In fact you can practically do anything while driving with your flashers on. There were many instances when Margaret would roll down the car window and tell the other cars to stop so that we could into the lane of traffic. Courtesy is not a common Mexican trait.

 

Driving into Merida, Peter wondered what he had got himself into. We came into the city through the sleazy part of town and Peter considered driving straight back to the USA.  Fortunately the house we were sitting was in a better part of town and the house itself was really nice. We would be staying in the Casita which was more than adequate for our needs.

SAM_0123
SAM_0125

Merida is the capital of the state of Yucatan and a really interesting city. There is very little crime in this city of about 750 000 people. Legend has it that the drug lords, whilst happy to kill anyone who got in the way of them building their empires, did not want their families to be at risk. They collectively decided that they needed somewhere in Mexico where their families could live without being attacked by rivals. They would all settle their families in Merida and agreed that the city was off limits for violence. It may just be a legend but it is one of the safest cities in Mexico and attracts a large number or Americans who are looking for somewhere to retire or get out of the rat race.

 

The city’s focal point is the Plaza de la Independencia, bordered by the fortresslike Mérida Cathedral and white limestone Iglesia de la Tercera Orden, colonial-era churches built using relics from ancient Mayan temples. The relationship between the Mayan’s and the Spanish is an interesting one. We took a free (somehow nothing is free in Mexico even if it is touted as being free) tour of the city one morning. In addition to ourselves, there were two Australian girls and a Spaniard. The tour guide was Mayan and from the get-go his dislike of the Spanish and what they had done to the Mayan’s was obvious. The Spaniard decided he wanted no part of this and scurried away at the first opportunity.

 

It is not hard to see why the Mayan’s dislike the Spanish, they effectively made them slaves when they attempted to colonize the country and sent anything of value back to Spain. All in the name of Christianity.

SAM_0051
SAM_0117
SAM_0080
SAM_0050

The ruins of the ancient Mayan cities are something to behold. They were master craftsmen and the stonework is remarkable. The stones were cut by hand and there is almost no mortar holding the stones together, the stones were cut perfectly. We visited the Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Dzibilchaltún ruins and even though Chichén Itzá is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, we preferred Uxmal. It really is a shame that they allow the vendors into the Chichén Itzá site, they are just a nuisance.

 

Most Mexicans are employed in the informal sector and paying tax is a foreign concept to them. Why should they pay tax when the country has so much oil?

SAM_0054
SAM_0178
SAM_0171
SAM_0202

It was whilst we were in Mexico that Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel and regarded by some as the most powerful drug trafficker in the world, escaped, yet again. This story, in itself, highlights the corruption that is so prevalent throughout Mexico.

 

El Chapo was first captured on 10 June 1993 in neighbouring Guatemala. His imprisonment didn’t however slow him down, he simply ran the cartel from his prison cell. He escaped from his maximum security prison cell on 19 January 2001 by climbing into a cart of dirty laundry and once the cart was in the parking lot, he climbed into a car and was driven away. No prizes for guessing how this happened.

 

He was recaptured on 22 February 2014 in Mazatlan after hiding in tunnels for a few days. He escaped again on 11 July 2015. The circumstances of his escape are almost farcical. He was being held in a maximum security prison. He was not allowed to leave his cell which had a small toilet and shower behind a screen wall and there was a video camera in the cell monitoring his every move.

While he was in prison, some members of the drug cartel rented a house about a mile (1.6 km) from the prison. They dug a tunnel from the house to the prison with the other end of the tunnel coming out exactly, and I mean exactly, under the toilet inside his cell. On the evening of 11 July 2015 he simply walked around the screen wall in his cell, went down the tunnel to a specially prepared motorcycle on a rail and rode to the house and walked away. Unbelievable! The talk was that the tunnel cost about US$5m to build and at one stage they were making so much noise that the prisoners complained to the authorities about the noise. If your pockets are deep enough, you can buy your way out of anything.

From Merida it was off to Cancun to see what all the fuss is about. It is certainly an impressive holiday destination with mile after mile of luxury hotels although we found Playa Del Carman to be nicer.

 

Peter decided that Mexico wasn’t an option for retirement, the language barrier, corruption and no-care attitude just didn’t do it for him. Perhaps Belize would be an option. And so it was off to Chetumal to get a ferry to Belize. During our research we found that we could get a ‘double-entrada’ (double-entry) stamp on our Mexican visas and we would not need to surrender our Mexican tourist visas when leaving Mexico for Belize and buy new tourist visas when we returned. We were only going to Belize for two days.

 

The law may allow for a double-entrada stamp on the tourist visa but the officials on the Mexican border will not stamp your tourist visa. They know they have you over a barrel and they are certainly not going to pass up an opportunity to get more Pesos out of you. As a Gringo, all they see is a big dollar sign on your forehead. By the time we added up all the costs for a two day trip to Belize and having to buy new tourist visas on our return, we decided that it was just too much money for a two day trip. Scratch Belize off the list of possible places to retire.

 

Peter had again managed to get some work in South Africa and it was back to California to put the car back into storage.

 

We spent from 25 May to 2 August in Mexico and having been once, have no desire to return.

SAM_0247
SAM_0264
SAM_0271
RV in Storage 3

The Last RV Trip

It would be our last trip in the USA. A fellow traveler from Australia has commented that the USA is so big and there is so much to see, one shouldn’t expect to see it all in one lifetime. Bruce is absolutely right. We had by no stretch of the imagination seen most of the USA but had made the decision to get closer to our children in Australia and New Zealand. A yacht would allow us to be close to our children and still allow us to travel to parts of the world we hadn’t yet seen.

 

Hooking the car and RV up in the storage facility proved to be more difficult than usual – perhaps we were just a bit rusty. The fact that it was raining didn’t help and we both ended up drenched by the time we got everything hooked up in the storage facility. We decided to spend a few days at one of our favourite Escapee resorts – Jojoba Hills – before heading west. Jojoba Hills is a remarkable park, it was built by volunteers and is still maintained by volunteers. It is more of a resort than a RV park and gave us some time to catch our breath and plan our route.

jojoba Hills 2
Jojoba Hills Big Lake 2
Jojoba Hills Pool 1
Jojoba Hills Pool Entrance

On our last visit to Las Vegas, Margaret had been really ill and we didn’t get a chance to see much of the city. Even though it was out of our way, we decided to spend a few days in Las Vegas to take in the glitz and glamour. Las Vegas has an ugly underbelly that few visitors to the city ever see. Sure there are the occasional beggars on the Strip but the authorities keep them away from the touristy areas. The libraries in the USA are great places to use free wifi and we took a trip to the library to do just that. The library is conveniently located some distance from the touristy areas and for good reason. The homeless use it as a refuge when it is open. The place was filled with dirty smelly homeless folk who had nowhere else to go. Despite all its problems, visiting the Strip at night is a magical experience.

 

The Fremont Street experience is just that – where else can you eat for free if you weigh more than 350 pounds (159 kg). If you are determined to eat yourself to death, they are happy to help.

 

The statistics for Las Vegas are amazing. In 2015 a staggering 42 million people visited the city each gambling on average US$579 per trip. The city has 149 213 hotel/motel rooms and the average weekend occupancy is 93.7%. The University of Las Vegas found that in 2013 the 23 casinos brought in over US$5 billion. That’s an average of US$630 000 per casino per day.

DSCF7832
las-vegas-417161_1920
bellagio-780362_1920
DSCF7809

There is much to see around Las Vegas and we took the opportunity to visit Death Valley National Park and the Hoover Dam – one a marvel of nature and the other of engineering.

 

Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the lower 48 States – 3.4 million acres - and is one of the hottest places in the USA.  The highest recorded temperature in the park was 134 degrees Fahrenheit (57 degrees Celsius), recorded in July 1913.

 

Hoover Dam took 4 years to build at a cost of US$49m – adjusted for inflation the cost to build it today would be almost US$1b – and is considered one of the architectural wonders of the world. At its highest point the dam wall is 726 feet (221 meters) high and 1 200 feet (366 meters) at its crest. It is estimated that the dam wall weighs 6.6 million tons.

DSCF7713
DSCF7744
DSCF7761
Hoover Dam, Arizona
Hoover Dam, Arizona

We met Kirk and Pam Wood when we first arrived in the USA and they have been good friends since the day we met. They spent many years traveling around the USA in their RV and Kirk is now a mine of information on the Escapees Forum. There have been many occasions when I have had no idea how to repair something that has broken and Kirk has patiently guided me while I bumble my way through the repairs. Our trips in the USA would not have been anywhere near as nice had it not been for our friendship with them. We certainly owe them a debt of gratitude. As we would be passing through Texas to get to the west coast we decided to visit them one last time and it was certainly an enjoyable time as always.

 

Whenever possible, we try and visit the Presidential Libraries on our travels. They are a fantastic source of information and we have yet to be disappointed. Bill Clinton’s Library in Little Rock, Arkansas was on our list of places to see. Bill Clinton’s Presidency will forever be defined by the Monica Lewinsky scandal but there is no doubt that he accomplished much during his term as President. Clinton was the 42nd President of the USA from 1993 to 2001 and was previously Governor of Arkansas. During his two terms in office more than 22 million jobs were created - more than were created in the previous 12 years – and unemployment dropped from more than 7% to 4%.

 

Whenever I visit one of these libraries I cannot help but wonder what a similar library for Nelson Mandela would look like and what it would do for both his legacy and South Africa as a country. Sadly I think it will never happen. Corruption, incompetence and a Nelson Mandela presidential library are unlikely bed-fellows.

DSCF7932
DSCF7935
DSCF7941
DSCF7940

Margaret is a big Elvis Presley fan and there was no way we could pass through Memphis without visiting Graceland. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the USA and they make every effort to squeeze as many visitors as possible into the house every day. Graceland was built by Dr. Thomas Moore in 1939 and he sold it to Elvis on 25 March 1957 for US$102 500. His parents moved into the house shortly after he bought it but Elvis only moved in at the end of June as he was busy filming Jailhouse Rock. Elvis died at Graceland on 16 August 1977 at the age of 42. Over 600 000 tourists visit Graceland each year. Where it not for Graceland and the millions of visitors, Memphis would be but a little rural town with nothing going for it.

 

There was a noticeable change as we crossed into the south-eastern States – the driver’s where more aggressive and less courteous, there was far more litter, many of the homes looked run-down and neglected and even the trips to the Walmart were unpleasant experiences.

DSCF7967
DSCF7999

We had stopped at a Rest Area on the highway for a break and were just about to leave when Peter looked across the road. It was a sight that strikes fear into the heart of every RV owner. There was a RV on fire. It is hard to believe it happened so quickly, within a few minutes the entire RV was engulfed in flames and a few minutes later it was all over. There was just a shell left behind. Incredibly, neither the petrol tank nor the propane tank exploded.

20160329_122806
20160329_122829

Our final destination for this trip was Florida. Peter had last been to Florida 16 years ago and Margaret had never been. We had decided to spend some time in Florida exploring the State properly rather than simply trying to do the highlights. Even though it was out of our way, we stopped at Atlanta in Georgia hoping to see the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and visit the home of Coca-Cola. Of all the cities that we have driven in, this one is by far the worst. The traffic volumes are horrendous and the driver’s even worse. It was a nightmare driving the RV with the car in tow in the city. It proved to be so difficult that we eventually gave up on the visit the Coca-Cola factory but we did manage to get to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. Certainly not a bad legacy for one man – the 39th President of the USA and the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. Carter received the award “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”

DSCF8004
DSCF8013

It is not difficult to see why Florida is such a popular tourist destination and why so many Americans retire in this State. It certainly has a lot going for it. It is also not difficult to see why the RV parks are empty in summer. We had been advised to visit Florida during spring and it turned out to be good advice. We arrived at the Escapee RV Park in Wauchula at the beginning of April and the park was already only half full. Most of the Canadian snow-birds had already done back to Canada to escape the heat. By the time we left the park at the end of May over 80% of the park was vacant and it was getting hot, really hot!

 

We spent almost 2 months exploring this wonderful State. The coastal cities of Tampa, Sarasota, and St. Petersburg on the Florida west coast are beautiful cities. We had heard that the A1A road on the east coast was one of the most scenic drives in the USA and it certainly is. The trips to Kennedy Space Center and Disney’s EPCOT Park were simply amazing. We also managed to get down to the Florida Keys.

epcot-252810_1920
DSCF8119
DSCF8125
Kennedy Space Center

As luck would have it, there was a boat show in Sarasota while we were in Florida and we took a trip to Sarasota to look at the boats. If only money were no object! The boats were way beyond our price range but it did give us an opportunity to see the configurations available and a chance to chat to some of the vendors. We think we know what we are looking for.

Boat Show
20160415_151354

We had hoped to sell the RV and the car in Florida and leave the USA from the west coast. The car proved to be fairly easy to sell but the RV not so. As we were running out of time, we decided to take the RV back to consignment dealer in Texas where we bought it.

 

And so it was back to Texas. We had started our journey in Texas and we would end it in Texas. Our first night in the RV had been in the parking lot of PPL Motorhomes and this would also be our last night in the RV. Our first RV Park had been the Escapees Park in Livingston, Texas and this would also be our last RV Park.

DSCF8193
EscapeesSign

We had covered a total of 38 652 miles (61 843 km) on our travels through the USA, Canada and Mexico. The RV had taken us over 19 869 miles (31 790 km) and the car a further 18 783 miles (30 053 km). What a journey it has been!