The Search for a New Expedition Vehicle

We started out with one idea, Jack’s Trip of a Lifetime – Scotland & Ireland. Then, in true DeCorso fashion, we proceeded to make it so complicated and so crazy, considering so many different options.  We have considered the Faroe Islands, Halifax, Magadan, Vladivostok, Hirtshal, Reykjavik and made no decision except that we will be spending Christmas in Ireland.  And Ryan has to be back for college on September 1.  We have decided that we will fly over and not drive the 5,000 miles through Canada.  This decision to drive through Canada went up for a family vote (we strive for consensus) and it lost 2-6. Then there was some caucusing and lobbying and a re-vote — still 2-6.

This idea has a lot of advantages.  Fairbanks to Halifax is 5,000 miles and would take at least a month and cost at least $2500 in gas and such.  Our current Expedition Vehicle is 56 feet long (too long) and would be hard to drive, hard to park and the rate for shipping is about $37 a square meter.

So we had to find a new expedition vehicle.  We divided up the lower 48 between us all for searching craigslist, using only places we could get to easily using Alaska Airlines (Chicago, DC), places that were close to shipping ports (Texas, Florida, New York), and places we just really like (New Mexico, Mississippi).

We had specific requirements:

  • A Class C (bed over the cab)
  • Between 24′ and 29′
  • A separate bedroom in the rear that we could modify for 6 bunks
  • Not too horribly ugly
  • Under $4000
  • Whatever was wrong with it, Mark had to be able to fix it

We found several scams that were weird.  We found one camper in Connecticut and it looked okay.  Some water damage and not the best layout.  The person said we were third in line! And then second in line! And then we could have it! We made arrangements to send her cash on paypal and Mark prepared to depart. But then, that same day, she sold it.  She said: “I’m sorry. The guy who didn’t show up this morning came this evening and he gave me a $500 deposit. He has 10 days to come up with the rest of the money. If something doesn’t happen I will let you know. It is just a lot easier for me to go with cash in hand and less uncertainty.”  We were discouraged.  We continued to search.  We found a lot of campers that met all but one of the requirements (like they were perfect except they had a sheet of plywood nailed to the outside or they were 36′ long or the toilet was just sitting there in the middle of the camper).

But! Mark was on his way to the dentist to have his teeth cleaned when I saw one in St. Petersburg.  And we bought it (after several phone calls, several visits by Grandpa Ted to check it out, and some drama about how to get the money there in a timely manner).

THANK YOU GRANDPA TED!! Without your help, we would not have been able to buy this camper!

Here are the photos of the new camper.  It has a table that is not in the photos and two chairs.  Final price: $3250.

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18 Months Have Passed By…

18 months have passed since we returned from our last big trip.

During the last 18 months, Ryan spent six months traveling back in South America. Jack and I went to visit Ryan Bolivia  for two weeks. We spent six days in Mexico City on the way to Bolivia and we liked it so much that Mark and I returned to Mexico City for ten days in August. We all went to Dawson City, Yukon, Canada for the Top of the World Highland Games.  We all went on the usual epic summer Alaska trips (Homer, fishing in Chitina, McCarthy, Kennicott…).

La Paz, Bolivia

We spent 10 days in La Paz.  We rented a furnished apartment on the 14th floor of a secure building in Sopocachi  for $425usd a week (complete with cleaning service!). Ryan found the apartment online. He had been renting a room for the month from a place he found on Airbnb for about $10 a night. We rented the apartment and it required a $425usd security deposit, which I made with my Visa debit card.  It was all perfectly fine. A man met with Ryan and they went over everything that was in the apartment, there was a long checklist that indicated every tea cup, towel and fork.  It was spacious with three bedrooms, a maids room, a kitchen, living room, dining room and a doorman.  The apartment had floor to ceiling windows which provided a great view but felt pretty unsafe.  I would not lean on them.

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View from my bedroom

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We went to the El Alto market. This was something we really wanted to do.  We had read all kinds of horror stories about this place so we were prepared – but not afraid.  I brought my phone, it was Galaxy S4 smartphone with a sim card from Bolivia. I did not take it out but I wanted it in case I needed it.  We were unsure about the best way to get there.  The Teleferico had just started operating so we decided to take it back from El Alto.  We did not exactly know where we were going so we finally decided to take a radio cab.  The cab cost about $5usd. He dropped us off at the big edge of the market by the Teleferico line (which was hundreds of people long). We meandered around for several hours.  There was some organization to the market and we spent most of our time looking at blue tarps of junk because that is the kind of stuff we like to look at. I bought a silver olive fork and an old skeleton key.  We wandered and tried to find the yarn section, which we did by accident.  I bought several kilos of lovely alpaca yarn, some of it handspun.  Ryan wanted a mechanical watch so we walked around for a long time after that, just looking at all of the stuff for sale.  We wanted to be home before dark and the Teleferico line was so long we could not find the end of it (it was the first week it was open). We decided to take a combi home.  We were a little confused about where to catch one because there was a cloverleaf thingy and it was hard to see what combis were stopping where but in hardly any time we had figured it out and we took the combi home.  Our experience  – the El Alto Market was not much different than any other market we had been in, in fact, we had felt more on guard when we shipped the van to Los Angeles and spent a few days by the shipyard in Long Beach.

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Lunch at Api Happy

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We road the teleferico, bought alpaca yarn by the kilo, we ate at several vegan and vegetarian restaurants and at night, we would often walk over to the Radisson Hotel, take the elevator to the top floor where Ryan had found a bar with a baby grand piano.  We were always the only people here.

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We ate at Gustu’s, (restaurantgustu.com), which, according to Food & Wine is one of the best restaurants on the planet. We ordered the tasting menu (we called ahead and asked for two to be vegetarian) and we got a great five course meal paired with Bolivian wine and beer.  The sommelier, Jonas Andersen, was kind and knowledgeable.  We left with four bottles of Bolivian port that tasted like chocolate covered cherries.  Gustu’s will sell you any wine on their menu for half price if you take it to go!  The port was $8usd a bottle.

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Llamas on Lake Titicaca

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My tiny house gets Magic!

We made a trip back to Puno, taking the bus to Lake Titicaca, getting off while the bus floated over in a raft and we were ferried across in little boats, taking the bus a few more miles to Copa Cabana and switching buses there for a bus to Peru, stopping  at the border where we walked across, and then arriving in Puno late. This was the second time Jack and I had made the trip and the fifth time for Ryan.  We know Puno quite well so we visited friends from the Grifo Salsido and went to Oscar’s restaurant (www.facebook.com/lovinghutperu) and met up with a good friend who took us the tiny market.  We had not been to the tiny market the entire time we lived in Puno.  The tiny market is only open one day a week and it sells tiny things for spells, magic, graves, altars and charms.  Tiny beer bottles, tiny cigarettes, little cars, lots of things.  We got a tiny house and we paid extra to have the spell worked which would help me have a better house in one year.  The spell took some time and involved a hot sauce bottle filled with blue gel and a handful of yellow confetti.  You could buy tiny money (dollars, euros, pounds, pesos). We bought a friend a tiny degree as she was just starting graduate school but then we had to fill it out.  And this is serious business.  When we did not write down her middle name, we were severely questioned and it was clear we did not know her middle name, so a conference was in order and, after about 10 minutes and many people consulting, a decision was made that we could fill it in later.

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Some tiny things

We had suits made for Ryan and Jack and they turned out really good.  Jack’s suit was about $90usd and it was custom made from fabric he selected.

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Mexico City

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On the way to Bolivia, Jack and I spent five days in Mexico City.  I had not been there since 1987 and I was surprised at how clean it was.  We went to the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico at Palacio de Bellas Artes, visited the Teotihuacan Pyramids, went to the Frida Kahlo Museum,  and found the Best Bakery in the World. But mostly we strolled around   Zócalo.  We had such a great time in Mexico City that Mark and I went back in August for 10 days.  We rented a great apartment on Airbnb right in the center of Zócalo. Ryan was on his way back to Alaska from Chile so we all met up for a few days and had a really good time.

The first time when Jack and I went, we rented a hotel room in Zócalo.  It was an okay room and we got a good price, it was the Hotel Marlowe, usually like $80 a night and we paid $42 for a double.  It was clean but very small.  The second time we went, we rented an apartment on Airbnb for $28 a night and it was spectacular! It had a kitchen, dining room table, an extra bed (for Ryan), washer & dryer, a patio, a record player and a big stack of records, a kind doorman and it was in a great location. Such a better experience!  Plus we were right down the street from Pastelería Ideal on Av. 16 de Septiembre, arguably the Best Bakery in the World (and we are still arguing about that).  20140812_111551

Because Ryan likes the view from tall buildings, we spend several evenings atop the Torre Latinoamericana, where luckily there is a bar.  We also went to the World Trade Center Ciudad de México, where, at the very top on the 45th floor is Bellini’s Restaurante, which holds the Guiness Book of World Records for Largest (but not highest) revolving restaurant.

Canada & Alaska

In June, we traveled to Dawson City, Yukon Territory for the Top of the World Highland Games where Jack took two first place medals for playing bagpipes.  In July, we traveled to Palmer, Alaska for the Alaska Highland Games where Jack took  first, second and third place in three competitions and Annabelle and Sylvia competed in their first official Highland Dance Competition.

Alaska is so beautiful but, I suppose because we live here, we never post photos from Alaska.

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At the Homer Highland Games

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Jack busking on the Homer Spit

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Jack gets two first places at the Top of the World Highland Games in Dawson City, Yukon Territories

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Dawson City, Yukon Territory

 

Alaska

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Karma

Money is a little tight at the end of the trip – as it should be, for if we were coming home flush with cash then something would be wrong with the universe.  There isn’t much to spend money on in Canada and we don’t need much really.  We are just not living in the style we had become accustomed to in Peru and there is so much we have missed while we were gone.  The urge to spend is strong and we have to fight it as we walk through massive, well-stocked Canadian grocery stores and gaze at the frozen food.  There is no frozen food in the rest of Americas but here, in Canada and the USA, people have made every conceivable kind of food for you and then frozen it in little dishes that you only need to microwave.  In Peru, you could buy microwaves on lay away, $4 usd a month forEVER.  Then there is the snack aisle.  And the bakery – not a drop of manjar anywhere, no figs, no crystallized fruit baked into manjar-iced bread.  Some things, like the salad dressing aisle, just plain overwhelm us and we have to turn around.  We want to buy every western thing we have not had and several of them, some kind of hoarding issue, can’t really explain it.

But we cannot afford to do that.  We have been living pretty basically for a long time, how hard can it be? The United Nations international standard for extreme poverty is living under $1.08 a day.  We have tried to live like this in Canada and have failed every single day, just including food.  $1.08 is really hard to live on. But it is interesting to try and really gives you a good perspective on cost of food.  Much harder here in North America.  It seems like you can only do this if you live only on the cheapest ramen – although you would think that we would have a better chance with 8 people pooling their money.

We are hoping to make it all the way to Whitehorse by Friday.  Friday is payday so then we can make it the rest of the way to Alaska.  We have a tight budget because we don’t know how much diesel will be in some of the more remote places and the van + camper gets about 10 miles to the gallon.  So every 10 miles costs us $5 or more.  We had some necessary (but expensive) repairs in Yakima and we lost two tires which we needed to replace so we were overbudget for our Friday arrival in Whitehorse.  It looked like we might be short by $60, depending on the price of gas.  We needed to get back in time to get the kids to 4H camp, the ONLY deadline we had to meet.

Two days ago, we camped at a snowmachine trail head and hiked up a trail.  There was a creek that flowed close to the path and and at one point, the kids were throwing rocks into it and trying to build a rock bridge across it (for some reason, this is a favorite DeCorso child stream activity, can’t explain that).  Max reached into the stream to better position a rock and found a wallet.  It was soaking wet and muddy and buried under leaves but it was complete and intact, with all the identification and cards and $65.  The kids were very excited about this and looked all through the wallet, noting the guy had a Safeway card and  later, when we drove by the Best Western in Grande Cache, Sylvia pointed out that the man must have stayed there, as there was a Best Western card in the wallet.  We took the wallet to the Mounties in Valemount, right before the border with Alberta.  The Mounty took down all of Max’s information, noting the location of the wallet and telling Max that if no one claimed the wallet in 90 days, the wallet would be mailed to Max.  When we left the station, there was some discussion about maybe the guy wouldn’t claim the wallet and then Max would get $65!  Mark and I pointed out that, while getting the wallet back would be cool, the guy getting his wallet back after so much time with everything in it was far cooler.

The next day, we were driving down the highway in Alberta in near Jasper National Park when we passed a Volkswagon Camper Van with Chilean license plates and a sign on the back that said Patagonia to Alaska – so of course, we had to stop.  Stopping is no small thing for us, as in this situation, we had to find a place to turn around.  The VW was indeed heading to Alaska from Chile and while we talked to the couple driving, it became clear they did not have and had never heard of the Mile Post.  Without even thinking about, Mark and I offered them our Mile Post at the same time.  Now our Mile Post has been there, done that in a big way.  It was missing it’s cover and the pullout map and looked like it had traveled to Patagonia, sailed across two seas and was now on its 6th trip up the Alaska Highway.  We were not offering them anything new or fancy but the Mile Post is kind of essential and as soon as we returned to the van, we both wondered if we would need the Mile Post now that we had given ours away.

The kids were all like you gave away our Mile Post?  What if we need it?  And we were all like come on, we have driven to Alaska 6 times.  To which the kids replied yeah, but not on the Bighorn Highway!  And we could only say that it was the right thing to do at the time, we both felt that, and we would be fine.  Playing it forward!  Something we had tried to do as much as possible on this trip.  This was accompanied by some eye rolling.

The next day, we spent the night in Grande Prairie and got a late start.  We didn’t leave until about 4pm and we were only headed to Fort Saint John, which is about 100 miles up the road.  We stopped to get gas and a man wished Mark Happy Father’s Day! as all 6 kids filed out of the van for a bathroom break.  Mark chatted with the man for awhile, which is not new.  Alaska plates always = questions and most people we meet seem to be chatty.  The man asked us where we were heading that night and Mark said FSJ.  We knew FSJ pretty well, as we had broken down here in 2011 on the return home of Big Trip I and had to wait a week for a starter to arrive.  We had a camping spot in mind — I mean, a parking overnight spot.  The man said he lived in FSJ so maybe he would see us there.

We left and headed on down the road.  We got a flat tire and Mark had to change it, which makes me nervous in spite of the mandatory South American Safety Triangle and flares.  We had to stop for another bathroom break at Dawson Creek, the start of the Alaska Highway. We arrived in FSJ and were just pulling into the camping spot when the man from the gas station showed up in his pick up truck.  “Follow me!” he said.  “I have the perfect place for you to camp.” He went on to sort of explain that he travels for his job and he had a reservation in Grande Prairie but decided to drive home and he still had the credit for his job so he used it at a hotel here in FSJ for us.  He had the keys, he already checked us in, there was plenty of space to park the camper, he told them we had 6 kids — we just needed to follow him.  So we did.  And here we are, in a fine hotel in FSJ with a stocked kitchen and two bedrooms and cable tv and wireless.  He must have been waiting for us for over an hour.  And that was that, no strings attached, just pure niceness, a sincerely nice thing to do.

That man made our night and we always remember it.

And that is my post on karma.  It came nicely illustrated and in a way even a kindergartner can understand.

 

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Lunch break in Jasper National Park

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The new camper

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On our way home!

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The United States of America!!

Before we left, I told the kids that when we returned they would literally want to kiss the ground in the wonderful USA.  They were skeptical then — but not any more.  We are back in the land of drinkable water, clean streets, traffic laws, and unending almost unimaginable choices – so many kinds of potato chips, soda, salad dressing, laundry detergent, shampoo (more than just 11 kinds of Head & Shoulders) and frozen food (which does not exist anywhere in South America).  The van got a few factory issued parts it was sorely missing, no matter how great the ingenuity and ability to create parts was in Ecuador and Peru.

Nowhere screams USA more than Las Vegas and a Rodeo.  So naturally that is where we went first.

 

At the Cosmopolitan looking at a gigantic chandelier of Swarvoski crystals you can enter and have a fancy drink inside

 

 

 

Bottomless sodas with ICE at Taco Bell!

 

The Sisters Rodeo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The New York Roller Coaster — Annabelle

While we were in Las Vegas, I really, really wanted to ride on the New York, New York Roller Coaster.  I wanted to ride it because it looked really awesome and fun.  The roller coaster went up 203 feet and then dropped you down 144 feet.  They said it took 15 minutes to ride it but mom told me that must include buckling in.  It had lots of turns and twists and loop de loops and downhills and it looks super cool because it is red and goes through all of the city of New York, it goes by the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.  Last time we went to Las Vegas, I wanted to ride this roller coaster but I was 6 inches too short.  When I looked the roller coaster up, it said you needed to be 54 inches to ride and I was sure I would be able to ride because my dad said I was 54 inches almost 55.  He measured me with a tape measure.  So the night came when I was going to ride the roller coaster and I was really excited!  We parked at Excalibur and walked over following the signs.  We got to the roller coaster line and the guy said kids had to take their shoes off tho get measured.  I took my shoes off and there were people in line yelling she’s tall enough! but the guy said NO you are not tall enough.  So I went over to dad and I was very sad.  I was only less than half an inch short.

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