It was just like driving to work, except that I kept on going: From New York to Argentina, through 12 countries, for four months and more than 13,000 miles.
It's the first leg of my overland trip around the world, an expedition that I consider the last true adventure on earth. From Buenos Aires, I will ship my car to Africa, fly across to meet it, and continue the drive, heading north to Europe, east to Asia, and finally, later this year, returning to North America.
My adventure began Nov. 15 when I gave up my apartment, quit my job as art director for The Associated Press, and set off in a '96 Toyota Land Cruiser outfitted with a rooftop tent, fridge, stove and portable toilet.
Since then, I've driven through jungles, mountains and fog, across dirt roads, desert sand and salt fields. Crooked cops tried to shake me down and bad maps led me to places where the road disappeared.
I saw monkeys in the Costa Rican rainforest, pink flamingos in Bolivia, and herds of llamas in Peru, along with pigs the size of ponies. I camped on beaches in Nicaragua so beautiful and remote that you forget you have to go back to civilization one day. I visited the Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras, ancient tombs and painted caves in Tierradentro, Colombia, and the Spanish colonial city of Quito, Ecuador.
A story about the trip that appeared in newspapers and Web sites before I left resulted in thousands of comments on chat boards, hundreds of e-mails to me, and scores of invitations. I am grateful for the kindness, generosity and hospitality of so many strangers who provided meals and a place to sleep. Notes I posted on a Land Cruiser message board also brought people out to help. It was nice to see that there is a real community behind all these electronic messages on the Internet.
But a few offers I turned down — one from a cable TV crew that wanted to accompany me and another from a company that wanted to pay me to wear a certain jacket throughout the trip.
Many well-wishers keep track of my trip through my blog, TransWorldExpedition.com, where I post updates and photos from the road. One e-mail I received included a marriage proposal for my traveling companion, Nadia Hubschwerlin. Nadia is a childhood friend; we are not romantically tied. In my blog, I told her suitor: "I will be glad to be the witness at her wedding as long as you are a decent guy."
It was chilly in New York when we started out, but we drove away from the cold weather, heading south on highways that roughly followed the Appalachian Trail to Georgia. We stopped in New Orleans (I am French and I wish that France had never sold Louisiana), then crossed the border from Texas to Mexico and drove southeast through Central America. We drove through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica to Panama, where the Pan-American Highway ends at the Darien Gap.
The Darien Gap, a roadless region of swamps and rainforests that stretches 90 miles to the tip of Colombia, makes it impossible to drive the entire distance to South America. So we shipped the car from Panama to Colombia and flew there to pick it up, then drove south, through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia to Argentina.
We camped on beaches and in parks, and often got permission to sleep on farms, where there was plenty of space and where people are accustomed to seeing seasonal helpers. In Costa Rica, there were so many Americans it was like the 51st state. We were also welcomed into homes in Guatemala, where everyone seemed to have at least one relative working in the U.S.
Sometimes we paid a few dollars for a cheap hotel or camp site, other times people let us stay for free. We would park our car, drag a table out, and begin to cook before nightfall. In the morning, we would fix coffee with the delicious beans collected across the best growing areas of Central America. We bought food in markets, and our gasoline-powered stove was our best friend along the way, especially in the cold, high mountains.
In hot, dusty places, it was hard to go without showers. We bathed every few days, sometimes in a home, hotel or campground, sometimes in a lake or with buckets.
In Cusco, Peru, for $4 a person, we rented a hotel room and looked forward to a shower. Of course in the morning, there was no hot water. That became a classic situation, as hotel owners would always promise it, but you would never get it. Hot water was our Machu Picchu: Always wanted to see it, with no success. (Machu Picchu is closed due to flooding.)
But we had a wonderful visit to a Cusco food market. We drank coca leaf tea and bought a massive amount of cheese, the best we had in a long time. Peruvians are good bakers, too; the bread is similar to what you find in France.
Car trouble has been our constant enemy. In Mexico, we drove with the hood open due to overheating. In Honduras, a map misled us to a tiny village in the northern mountains where the road ended. Driving back the next day, the steering failed and we crashed. We were unhurt but the car needed parts and repairs. Eventually we drove to Managua, Nicaragua, with a damaged axle. There someone heated the metal and we bent it back as best we could.
On our way to Cusco, we got stuck in the mud for a day, and two truckers who tried to help us got stuck there too. Finally a road crew rescued us. Then as we drove beneath a hillside, we were showered with stones from a landslide above. In Bolivia, truckdrivers were staging a nationwide protest with blockades; we got through by joining a media convoy.
At every border crossing, we filled out stacks of meaningless papers, always looking for the next stamp. In a few places, police officers seeing U.S. license plates pulled us over for imaginary infractions. In Honduras, I pretended not to understand and they went away. In Mexico, a cop asked us for $5 to buy a chicken. I gave him $2 and he was happy.
In Managua, we got stopped by police 15 times; at one point I had to pay $15 when they threatened to keep my license. At the Bolivian border, we had this conversation with a customs official:
"OK, senor, everything is OK, and now you can make a contribution."
"What do you mean, I don't understand."
"I don't have any money."
"Si senor, contribution."
"So is it corruption?"
"No senor, just contribution for the office."
In the end they let me through without paying because I had no local currency.
Before leaving the U.S., I met with a fellow adventurer, Al Podell, who co-wrote a book called "Who Needs a Road?" about his own round-the-world drive in the mid-1960s. The book was a major inspiration for my trip. Al told me he was doubtful I would succeed, but he offered to hire three women armed with machine guns to protect me in Colombia. I had to decline, but the fact that he cared went straight to my heart. Al, you are the best.
We made it through Colombia OK, but safety is always on my mind. In Cusco, 10 minutes after arriving, a guy took a laptop from the trunk. I chased him and got it back. Twenty minutes later, some other dude tried to force open the trunk, fortunately with no success. We spent the rest of our time there locking and unlocking doors and paying extra attention to our surroundings.
Back in the '90s, Al and his co-author said that their 42,000-mile journey around the world "was a motor trip that cannot be repeated in our modern day and age."
As I prepare to leave South America for Africa and the rest of the trip, I am determined to prove them wrong.