A recurring theme during our travels has been, “…if we had a car…”. Originally we’d considered shipping a car to Ushuaia, where we would have met it after the trip to Antarctica and fresh with the memories of waddling penguins, driven north. But what kind of car? Over-landers are usually outfitted with some pretty intense rigs: think Land Rovers with jerry cans and engine snorkels. One would want to be prepared for anything, but honestly, how often to your encounter everything? Most South and Central American countries actually have pretty good roads. My favorite car is the Subaru Outback. Not because I’m a lesbian, but because they’re great cars, all-wheel drive, relatively low gas mileage, and the engines last forever. With many thousands of miles ahead of us, gas and reliability has to be a consideration. But an Outback couldn’t get us through the Amazon, and no car in the world could get us from Ushuaia to Rio in the short amount of time we had to make Carnaval. So we shelved the idea and opted for buses and short hops in planes. But every time we passed a lovely little roadside shrine or defunct amusement park with a broken lock on the gate, Magda would murmur, “…if we had a car we could stop and take a picture.”
We came close to buying a Mitsubishi Montero in Ecuador from an Argentinian with a German last name. It had American plates and was headed south as we were headed north. After researching the gas mileage, which was around 15mpg, I started to balk. The seller was sending strange signals too, so in the end we passed but never quite forgave ourselves for it.
We decided that once above the Darien Gap, that forested blockade between Panama and Colombia, we’d again try in earnest since we’d no longer be required to ship the car around the gap.
Back in New York for our working vacation from our travels, we found the perfect vehicle: a Subaru Forester with California plates, in Panama, the perfect fit. Except it was in Panama and we were in New York and by the time we knew when we could be there to buy it and how to buy it, the seller had already shipped it to Ecuador.
Back at square one, we looked again. Just before we left for Costa Rica, Magda found another gem on Craigslist: a 1997 Subaru Outback with Texas plates, headed south from Nicaragua. We contacted the seller and began a long chain of emails with him about when we could get together to meet and see the car. It was twice the price of the blue book value, but he said he’d put a lot of money into fixing her up. I thought this might mean it was tricked out for overlanding, hoping. His emails included a lot of LOL’s, which instead of making us laugh out loud made us a little worried.
Our trip to Costa Rica didn’t go as smoothly as planned. Checking in at Newark Airport we reached the front of a long line only to be told that we needed return tickets from Costa Rica in order to go to Costa Rica. I told the attendant behind the counter that that simply wasn’t true, with so much conviction she called to double check. I was only so sure she was wrong because it seemed so utterly ridiculous. But no, in fact we needed a return ticket, saying we were leaving by bus wasn’t good enough. So with the clock to boarding counting down, we ran to another counter where we waited forever to buy one way, refundable tickets. In the end we arrived at the gate just as they were boarding.
When we got to Costa Rica we stayed with our friends Guillermo and Sandra, architects out of New York with an office in San Jose. We stayed with them at their house/office, wandering out to make coffee in our socks while the employees worked diligently to design the next great building in San Jose. We even pitched in to help with a couple of different projects.
The Outback didn’t arrive when we thought, and the seller didn’t answer our emails for four days. When he finally answered, he said he’d be leaving Nicaragua shortly – after we’d been waiting in Costa Rica for a week.
Instead of waiting around, we rented a Toyota Sedan and took off to see a bit of the country. We drove to Dominical on the Pacific Coast and ate ceviche under the palm trees. We met up with our friend Rachel, also living in San Jose, and drove to Volcan Poas where looked down into its smoking crater. We drove to Puerto Viejo, a sleepy village on the Caribbean where we touched the Atlantic again for the first time since Brazil. It was just as warm and inviting as it had been 3000 miles south.
We returned from Puerto Viejo on a Tuesday night, expecting to meet with the Outback the next day. I got food poisoning somewhere (maybe in a little fish shack on the beach) and was doubled over in pain while Magda steered us through whiplash curves and dense fog going over the Cordillera de Talamanca pass. In the morning we prepared to meet (I’ll call him Ben) Ben at noon at a cafe that everyone in San Jose knows. Everyone. We sent him a map just in case. Naturally noon came and went and by one o’clock we’d given up. We’d used the time talking ourselves out of buying the car; it was too expensive, the seller was unreliable. We paid our check and left, eying every gringo we glimpsed warily. When we returned to Guillermo’s we got an email from Ben. He was in an Internet cafe somewhere. He was lost, LOL, he’d be there in ten minutes.
When we got back to the cafe, we were met at the door by a slender gringo, his face covered by a vast, bushy beard. He had clean blue eyes and was covered in dirt. Holding a coffee in one hand, he introduced himself with the other. He seemed kind and a little serious. Not really an LOL’er at all. As we walked to the car, he casually turned back and motioned to a tall thin Latino that was following us.
“Allow me to introduce my traveling partner, Chilly Willy.”
We shook Mr. Willy’s hand.
I’d meant to be dreaming of penguins while driving north, not buying a car from one.
Maybe predictably, the car was a mess. The front left bumper and its fog-light was caved in. The finish looked like someone had ironed it. Ben said he’d cleaned her up for us, meaning that in the recent past it had been even more filthy. Magda was ready to walk away, but it crossed my mind that the wear may be only cosmetic, so I jumped behind the wheel while Ben waxed nostalgically to Magda about their adventures. Chilly Willy was quietly standing by drinking coffee. Ben didn’t point any serious issues out to us, maybe hoping we’d discover them sometime after giving him a pile of cash, but as I found them he explained:
The AC doesn’t work.
“Oh yeah, we just rolled down the windows, natural air man!”
The back window doesn’t roll up.
“You just gotta push on it.”
The front left bumper is bashed in.
“Yeah man, I hit a dog in Guatamala. Worst day of my life.”
Oh, I’m sorry. Did the dog die?
“I dunno man, we kept driving.”
At this point Magda was poking me, which meant it was time to bid the pair adieux. But I had to take her for a spin, maybe she drove like a dream the way Ben described. I once had a dream there was something locked in a box, banging and rattling and trying to get out. Driving Ben’s Outback was a little like that dream. I pointed out the racket coming from the rear.
“Yeah, it’s the exhaust pipe. I put a strap on it to make it rattle less, but if you want it to be quieter, just put another strap on it.”
When we wished Ben and Chilly best of luck and we walked past Guillermo and Sandra’s house like we’d never seen it before. The last thing we needed was our friends waking up to find a certain Mr. Chilly Willy eating pancakes in their kitchen. In the next days we went to buy bus tickets north to Nicaragua and tried not to look out of the windows as we drove.