North and central America

A second departure from the United States!

Our flight from Vietnam to the United States was interminable. Having booked the cheapest flights, it’s no surprise that it took us nearly twenty-seven hours to reach the American continent after having to stop for half a day in Seoul, South Korea. To avoid wandering among the duty free shops, waiting rooms and bathrooms we left early to discover the capital in the freezing cold! We quickly visited the Gyeongbok Palace, but tired after our late nights, mad race through South-East Asia and the motorcycle in Vietnam, we found refuge in a café to write and update our website.

Once in California, we were greeted by some of our family members, come from France, with whom we stayed ten days. The city of San Francisco no longer holds any secrets for us as we walked through all of its almost vertical streets, and a road trip through California and Nevada has allowed us to discover the beautiful wildlife of Yosemite Park as well as the breathtaking landscapes and breadth of the Grand Canyon. In particular, we made a stop in Las Vegas, where the sheer excess, comparable to Dubai, is related to the madness of entertainment. In a city where everything is used as incitement to consumerism or play, it is possible in the same day to take a gondola ride at the Venetian hotel, stroll through artificial Parisian streets and finally attend the grandest shows of the day. Being able to release the pressure and go along on a comfortable trip with our families for a few days was very nice.

After a long journey across the Pacific, it is with excitement and relief that we reunited with the 4L! Out of its container and parked at our warehouse provider, it was proudly sheltered alongside the most beautiful other vintage cars, including Porsche, MG, and Triumph! Through word of mouth, we met Jean, a French mechanic based in San Francisco for almost fifty years, was seduced by the project and agreed to examine the car, a much-needed care after the Nepalese and Indian trails. We quickly realized that she was in good hands when we saw a 2CV and a Renault 5 in front of his garage and witnessed his precise adjustments in the engine. The fuel pump that was beginning to falter was changed; the valves were set right, the carburetor leaks clogged and the alternator was replaced with the new one we had had in our trunk since our departure. Jean is a very talented and conscientious mechanic, his humility and kindness really touched us. It is thanks to him that we could depart serenely on the American roads! After five months of travel, we sorted through all of our supplies, shedding the superfluous. The hardest decision to make was to part from our gallery roof. After some thought we decided to send it back to France, taking care to keep a jerry can, to reduce our load and avoid attracting attention in the next countries.

Housed for more than a month by our expatriate families in San Francisco, we lived in royal conditions, the Californian winter is milder than in Normandy, and we did not get tired of planning the rest of our journey in the face of the San Francisco Bay. It was also an opportunity for us to take stock of our microcredit operations through video reports of our meetings with stakeholders and beneficiaries of microfinance, as well as portraits of micro-entrepreneurs that we distributed on our website. This break – although a bit long for our tastes – was helpful in planning our itinerary, meetings, and conferences, and establish initial contacts with different intermediaries for the next cargo between Panama and Columbia and then Brazil and Senegal. Our farewell party, at the same time as the Super Bowl (the famous football competition) and in the presence of French expatriates for whom the 4L brought up distant memories, reminded us of our special departure at the end of last August. Thus it is that with our equipment reduced to the bare essentials and a clean car in good condition, we made a new start from San Francisco on February 3rd! Ready to hit the Panamerican towards unknown horizons, we were delighted by the idea of discovering the Central and South American land! We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge one last time, an architectural marvel from 1937, impatient and moved by the hospitality of our families.

Nicolas & Matthieu

 
 

¡Bienvenidos a Mexico!

So close to the Silicon Valley, we could not help but make a detour through the campus of Apple and Google before rejoining Highway 1, along the Pacific Ocean, to Los Angeles. The California coast is preserved and the road overlooking the ocean had superb views. At this time of the year, the banks are populated with Alaskan sea lions come to breed, and only a few surfers venture into the mighty Pacific rollers. We resumed our camping habits and planted our tent in mostly wild, sometimes more tamed places. Indeed, it is forbidden to camp just anywhere in the United States and we had to resign ourselves several times to sleeping in campsites, mainly occupied by camping cars – which didn’t overly enchant us. However, this allowed us to meet with other very nice travellers like Judit, a part-time Swedish midwife, who had been living in the United States for thirty- five years. Single woman of about fifty, she lives in a van and spends her free time contemplating the stars, the wonders of nature and the world, traveling extensively throughout the continents. It was a pleasure to talk to this woman, interested in our project, gentle and kind to us. Judit was truly an amazing, memorable encounter on our journey. A hippie without being marginalized, she keeps her feet on the ground, stays in touch with her children in New York and is connected to the real world with her iPhone, which she confided she could not live without. After having breakfast together we parted, and it was to our amazement that she left a more than generous contribution to our trip! In general, we found Americans friendly, enthusiastic and easily approachable. We were even invited to brunch by a stranger after exchanging only a few words at a supermarket checkout! In this region, a global center of entrepreneurship and new technology, we felt that anything was possible and that beautiful stories were being written every day. Nevertheless, illegal immigrants from Central America who spend their days waiting for a hypothetical employer by the road so that they can perform a few hours of manual, show that this paradise is not accessible to everyone.

Our visit to Los Angeles was expeditious. Huge, streaked with highways and interchanges, we only have photos of Beverly Hills, the famous Hollywood Boulevard, and the Hollywood Hills, known for their giant letters overlooking the city. We did not want to get lost in this anthill and preferred to quickly make our way into the real America. Not that of California or the East Coast, but the open spaces, working ranches and towns. We crossed Arizona where the landscapes gave us the vivid impression of being in a western with cowboys and Indians! In New Mexico, our endless kilometers were marked by snow and a slight scare after we almost ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

We each have several copies of the car keys and a third is hidden in a false bottom inside the 4L. One evening while we were setting up camp just before nightfall, we realized that we were missing the gas cap! Last time we had stopped for gas, we had switched drivers and the fuel cap along with Nicola’s keys had slid from the roof and tumbled down into a small pothole, not far from the gas station. Luckily we found it intact in the dark of night, which cost us a hundred kilometer detour but it was necessary! To spice up the adventure a little, the carburetor began to falter and our starter stopped working shortly after we left Arizona. Now we have to almost always push the 4L while we start it in second gear, which proves quite painful in town. It actually attracts a handful of curious onlookers who willingly lend us a hand. The capricious car always ends up roaring to life in a mixture of laughter, shouts and exhaust.

We were stunned by the porosity of the border when you leave the U.S. for Mexico: we passed it quickly without being searched or even obtaining a stamp of exit from the United States on our passports! But while customs were lenient with us, in the other direction the boundary is a real fortress. In a few hours we found ourselves in the land of tacos, burritos, Corona, santiags, sombreros and moustaches! However, the high level of insecurity in Mexico tarnishes the festive atmosphere found in the country. Mexican and Americans alike to whom we mentioned our trip warned us repeatedly against bandits, police corruption and the danger of rampant drug cartels, especially in the north of the country, and told us to be extremely cautious. Aware of the situation, we went quickly through the state of Chihuahua and Durango where it would be bad news to be alone in the middle of the night in a desert of cacti! We have stopped counting the number of checkpoints on the road, where soldiers are armed as if the country was at war. The frequency of police patrols in cities reminds us how tense the situation is with drug traffickers. We have during our recent weeks on the road progressed all the way to Central America thanks to an excellent, albeit expensive, network of roads and a smooth flow of traffic. This is the first time that we spent as much on tolls as on gasoline!

We have fallen in love with Mexico: the food is good, it is easy to travel, and Mexicans are very friendly. This country is an amazing mix of the ones that we have already crossed. More developed than we had at first thought, there is much the same atmosphere as in Turkey, a country we visited last September. From an urban planning point of view, small Mexican cities are nice to live in and friendly. Houses, with flat roofs, do not exceed three floors’ height, the main roads converge towards a wooded central square, and many of the restaurants and cafes have a terrace on the street or a small courtyard. In historic cities, ruins and buildings from the Spanish colonial era, dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, stand alongside stores and chain restaurants whose signs are discreetly painted on the facades, which makes the whole scene very harmonious! We visited San Luis Potosi and were warmly greeted by a Mexican family, whom we had the chance to meet through friends in France. Further south, we explored Guanajuato, that is, without a doubt, the most beautiful city of our trip! Lively, every street is more dazzling than the last. We walked throughout it amazed, not knowing where to direct our attention because the city was so superb.  Interlaced with Spanish colonial architecture, it is a patchwork of houses painted in bright, beautiful colors – its authenticity, activity and colors left us speechless.

At the time we are writing this we have reached, in terms of time, the halfway point our trip, driving more than 20 000 kilometers in 19 countries! This major step in the Microcredit 4L adventure is the perfect opportunity for us to thank the French Development Agency and the Department of Seine -Maritime for their commitment, as well as all of our partners and the many individual donors without whom we could not support as many micro -entrepreneurs or live such an extraordinary adventure. It is weird to us that Asia is behind us and that our next meeting with microfinance institutions will be in Spanish! However, we welcome the beautiful roads and upcoming meetings. But before all else, let’s push the 4L onwards!

Nicolas & Matthieu

 

Click to see all our photos from Mexico on our Flickr gallery
 
 

From North America to Central America

In Mexico, we bypassed Mexico City to meet Claire in Cholula. She is a childhood friend with whom we built sandcastles in Brittany many years ago! Although we are as efficient as a Formula 1 team when we start the car by pushing it, we prefer to avoid as much as possible large, congested cities, especially since we were repeatedly warned about the police corruption in the Mexican capital. After a day of driving on the expensive but well-maintained major highways, we reached Cholula, neighboring the city of Puebla, where most of the surrounding university students live. We were warmly welcomed to the shared home of several French exchange students. Seeing them in the middle of writing their mid-year exams and memoirs reminded us once again of how lucky we are to be able to take a gap year in our studies to travel the world. For the weekend, Claire suggested we go climb La Malinche, a volcano 4,461 meters high. Numbed by several thousand kilometers on the road, we jumped at the opportunity of taking to the air! Thus, after meeting Camille and Hania, Claire’s two friends, and having gone to the market to buy provisions for two days, we pitched our tent 3000 meters up from the foot of the volcano, in order to begin our ascent at dawn. Over dinner, while we were away from our tents sitting around a campfire, stray dogs took advantage of our inattentiveness to tear the girls’ tent and steal all of our provisions! It was probably the best meal they had had in a long time, with ham, cheese, tortillas, chocolate and even avocados! Holding a grudge against the hungry dogs of the previous day, we left at sunrise and reached the summit a few hours and 1,461 vertical meters later. At that altitude, where the lungs can only fill 65% of their maximum capacity, the lack of oxygen – to which we are not accustomed – caused a feeling of intense exhaustion, with each movement requiring considerable effort. But the panoramic view of the Mexican plains and volcanoes was well worth the arduous four-hour climb up the volcanic rock and sandy soil of this impressive volcano. This excursion with our new friends will remain one of the highlights of our visit to Mexico.

We spent the rest of our stay at Cholula organizing the next leg of our journey. As surprising as it may seem, there is no road connecting Central and South America. The car will traverse the famous Darien Gap, an impenetrable jungle between Panama and Colombia, by cargo. So we once again plunged into the infernal world of maritime travel, sending dozens of emails, quote requests, and crossing schedules. None matched our ideal schedule, so we were forced to book a place on a boat in early March, choosing to proceed faster through Central America and focus on South America. Traveling is always a matter of making choices and compromises!

Thus, while keeping in mind our goal of moving rapidly towards Panama, we discovered the main attractions of the area as we traveled east towards the Chiapas region, one of the less touristy parts of the country. After a night of camping, we discovered at dawn the Mayan site of Palenque, where ruins, temples, lush jungle and waterfalls all mingle. We walked through this extraordinary site for a few hours under the blazing sun on the lookout for howler monkeys, whose cries were the only thing disturbing the serenity of this place. Near the Gulf of Mexico in the Yucatán, we continued to alternate between camping at night and sleeping in small inns, and regarding our meals, ate either at street restaurants or had lyophilized Chinese noodle soup after a salad with avocados. We made a stop in this fantastic region at Chichén Itzá, considered one of the seven wonders of the world . Beautifully restored, the majestic pyramid impresses people with its geometry and proportions. Making a detour, we also discovered the cenote, underground cavities partially filled with fresh water, in which we bathed. These almost surreal sites are among the most beautiful we have enjoyed exploring since the beginning of our journey. Finally, we camped under the stars on a beach looking out on the Caribbean Sea, where we took a quick dip in the morning. The idea of this may be dreamy, but really the wind covered us with sand (we still find some at the bottom of our sleeping bags), we were attacked overnight by insects, and were woken up at 4am by a tropical downpour… However, we were enchanted by Mexico, where we went from desert to jungle while exploring mountains. The Mexicans were upbeat and welcoming, and the reigning climate, colors, and festive atmosphere make this country warm and exciting.

Our departure from Mexico and entry into Belize marked our first kilometers in Central America! We crossed this small country listening to Bob Marley, whose music is perfectly suited to the pace and the atmosphere of the country. The scenery, people and small colorful houses on stilts made us think of the Antilles. Passing through land borders has become an almost daily routine and our experience now enables us to cut short all the scam attempts. In Guatemala we discovered the Mayan site of Tikal, and watched with wonder at dawn the awakening of the jungle from the top of a pyramid. We wanted to reach the heavenly waterfalls of Semuc Champey to camp, but for the first time had to give up on our goal and turn around. The extremely rugged mountain road turned out to be impassable for our little 4L, which overheated and struggled up the hill with only two-wheel drive. The tense atmosphere in the streets in Honduras and the fact that the manager of the hotel armed himself at night left us mixed memories of this country, but we are well aware that we stayed for too short a time to appreciate its true value. Finally, we slowed down in Nicaragua to discover the colonial cities of León and Granada. We granted ourselves a weekend break on the island of Ometepe; formed by two impressive volcanoes in the middle of a lake so large it resembles a sea. We took advantage of the tranquility of the island, yet untouched by tourism, to rest and work on logbooks, photographs, and meetings with micro-entrepreneurs.

During this rapid crossing of Central America, we felt like we spent all of our time in gas stations, sometimes even setting up our tent in these charmless yet utilitarian places that had practical amenities such as wifi, toilets and coffee! We are frustrated at having to travel full speed through this part of the world, accumulating long days of driving, but at least we have time to admire the rolling hills and tropical vegetation that are new to us! It is very hot and whenever we stop our car turns into an oven! We sweat all the more as police checkpoints are frequent on the road, luckily we are now well trained. When we stop we magically forget all our Spanish and speak only in French with big smiles. We explain through gestures that we are going to Brazil para el mundial, for the soccer World Cup of June 2014, which we admit is a small lie. But without exception, the policeman’s expression, ordinarily so serious, brightens, defusing the tense situation! Thus, it is thanks to soccer – a common passion shared by everyone – and the charming little 4L, that as yet no police officer has demanded payment for an imaginary offense, a common practice in this region.

We are pleased to interrupt our mad dash to Managua at Victor and Margaux’s place. They are two French friends. In the Nicaraguan capital we will meet new micro- entrepreneurs supported through our partner Babyloan and are thrilled at the prospect of discovering new micro-businesses!

Nous sommes heureux d’interrompre notre folle course à Managua chez Victor et Margaux, deux amis français. Dans la capitale nicaraguayenne nous rencontrerons de nouveaux micro-entrepreneurs soutenus par l’intermédiaire de notre partenaire Babyloan et sommes ravis à la perspective de découvrir de nouvelles micro-entreprises!

Nicolas & Matthieu

 

Click to see all our photos from Mexico on our Flickr gallery

Click to see all our photos from central America on our Flickr gallery

 
 

A dip in the Caribbean Sea

In Managua, Nicaragua we visited the microfinance institution AFODENIC, supported by our partner Babyloan. Over two days we met with a dozen micro-entrepreneurs that we support, interacting with the staff and even interviewing the director. At each meeting, we were warmly greeted and the micro-entrepreneurs proudly showed us their shops, restaurants, workshops, mobile kitchens… We discovered the business of a shoemaker, a manufacturer of tortillas, and even a keeper of a little bodega. Even if the process of loans and repayments is similar among the different microfinance institutions that we have visited during our trip, this is the first time we were able to speak directly to micro-entrepreneurs without having to go through the intermediary of a translator. Without this added distance, we are closer to our partners and our accent and mistakes make them smile! Under no circumstances are we present to supervise the reimbursement of loans, in fact, the goal of our journey, as we meet the starters of micro-projects, is to promote microfinance as a powerful tool of greater development, that much more effective when combined with social and educational training. However, we are somewhat frustrated about not having access to more accurate data on the inner workings of these institutions or not being able to analyze more in-depth the challenges they face.

The day before we left for Costa Rica, we tried to start the 4L by pushing it, as usual. Sweating and breathless at the end of the sixth try, it was with relief that we saw two men come out of a house to help us. Amused by the sweat beading on our faces and the simplicity with which we told them that we had started the car this way since the United States and that it worked very well, we didn’t even have time to catch our breath before the 4L was attached to a tuning car with a dingy strap. After some rattling and ten minutes of careful driving, during which the strap broke several times, we finally stopped the car in front of an incredible courtyard – flooded with engine oil and littered with cylinder heads, pistons, tires and tools of all shapes and sizes. Within moments, the mechanic, a small man with twinkling eyes, came out of from behind a huge Dodge engine. Stunned by his contortions and the bric-a-brac of the court in which he clung to his passion of reviving the most worn and dirty engines, we exchanged a look – knowing that this was the right man for the situation.

“And are you good with mechanics? ” is the systematic question of everyone to whom we explained our tour of the world by 4L. A justifiable and reasonable query, yet we did not deem it necessary to know how to completely disassemble a gearbox and it is with amusement that either one or the other of us answered that although we personally we were not very knowledgeable, our teammate was pretty well-versed – which had the advantage of cutting short any other questions about it! So it was that, ignorant up until that point, in the United States we diagnosed a faulty starter, but because we were short on time we agreed to get a new one in Colombia (where there are still many 4Ls in circulation) and push the car in the meantime!

Within two minutes, the Nicaraguan mechanic announced that our battery was dead and that all we had to do was replace it. The battery, fading since California, no longer fed the electricity starter and so could not launch the motor. Simple. Us who thought that the rollers and brushes of the starter were too worn down, we had it all wrong! But take this explanation with a grain of salt, we could be wrong again! Next time we won’t pretend to know the origin of a mechanical failure and will go straight to a mechanic… We still laugh about our incompetence! Nevertheless, although our knowledge is limited, never before this event did we have a mechanical failure preventing us from moving forward. In this respect, it would be unfair at this time not to mention Jean-Pierre Prevost and his team, who meticulously prepared the 4L before our departure. On the other hand, in all the countries we have crossed, we have always found a mechanic capable of repairing an engine with very little! All three of us, bent over the hood until late that evening, we lit the mechanic’s gestures with our dynamo lamp. Marveling at so much “technology,” the latter burst out laughing at every reel, necessary to recharge it. Fascinated by the lamp that we left him in lieu of thanks, it is with smiles and a new oversized battery that we left him, our two yellow headlights piercing the night ahead.

The next two days were intense. We decided to send the car from Panama to Colombia in mid-March rather than to wait for April, in order to spend more time in South America. Therefore, we were forced to cross Costa Rica in less than a day. A country known for its nature and high cost of living, it is known as the Switzerland of Central America, and interested us a little less than the others. After hours spent in customs when crossing the borders of Costa Rica and Panama, and two nights at service stations under a relentless tropical rain, we arrived at the Balboa Yacht Club in Panama City, where all overlanders end their route before confronting the administrative formalities necessary to cross by cargo into South America. Upon our arrival, we had the pleasure of meeting many travelers! German retirees in an all-terrain vehicle, a French family with three children in a motor home from California, and a Belgian-Spanish couple in a Land Cruiser registered in Brussels! At the last minute we changed our plans and decided to cancel our appointment the next day to send the car, and shared a 40-foot container with our Belgian friends, Alexander and Mireia, which allowed us to split the invoice in half! Dozens of hours spent on Skype and sending emails since San Francisco proved unnecessary, since our passage was finally settled in the space of one night! But we spent a great time together at the Balboa Yacht Club, exchanging tips and stories of our adventures, living as a family of all ages, from 4 to 68 years old!

As soon as the formalities for the container were straightened out, we met Aymeric and Elise, two Rouen expatriates in Panama City. They gave us a very warm welcome, where from the 42nd floor of a magnificent tower we had a stunning view of the capital. These few days in their company were an opportunity for us to rest, to meet the French Alliance of Panama City, attend a concert, discover the city and the famous canal! The high level of development in the city surprised us, the skyscrapers are mushrooming and the first subway line has just been opened! However, under its modern appearance, the Panamanian economy is heavily infused with the activity of the canal and the redistribution of wealth does not seem to benefit the entire country. An 80 km canal connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean since 1914, today more than 14,000 vessels pass it every year, with an average fee of $ 54,000, and to optimize the performance of the locks, container ships are now built based on the size of these locks, 305 meters long and 33.5 meters wide. The standardization of containers, invented in 1956, blew maritime traffic out of the water and became the driving force of globalization. The Coca-Cola and Samsung billboards that we saw even in the most remote areas of rural Nepal, Vietnam or Honduras are evidence of this process.

The car safely in the container next to a 4×4 Belgian Land Cruiser, we now had to find a solution to traverse the Darien Gap, the jungle between Panama and Colombia. The lack of road connecting the two continents is more related to political, environmental and security considerations rather than technical ones, and the only way to go from one country to the next is to fly or board a boat from Colón to Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Both means of transportation being about the same price, it is without hesitation that we decided to swap our 4L for a 12-meter sailboat with our Belgian friends! Aboard the Corto II, there were 9 of us passengers, an Argentinean captain, and a small dog! There are regular ships, and if the crossing to Colombia lasts only 48 hours, the captains sail first through the paradise-like islands of San Blas for three days. This archipelago of 300 islands has everything from a postcard setting: the turquoise sea water, fine white sand, palm trees on untouched islands, dolphins in the morning… So we were very busy between fishing, swimming, and scuba diving to observe fish and coral, as well as reading in the sun. The crossing itself was less restful though as rough waters – which Nicolas will remember – got half the crew sick! In these less than perfect sailing conditions, the captain surprised us with his ability to manage the boat on his own during the day and cook for everyone at night, smiling all the while! We finally arrived in the middle of the night in Cartagena, Colombia and must now arm ourselves with courage and patience to do the paperwork to get the 4L, establish a provisional program for the next four months, and begin the discovery of this new continent that already seems bountiful and beautiful! Forward march!

Nicolas & Matthieu

 

Click to see all our photos from central America on our Flickr gallery