After getting caught in a flash flood, we decided to put our Panamerican adventures on hold. Shipping Big Emma back to the US forced us not only to deal with cleaning up the situation, but also with the larger implications of the events that had taken over: after a year and a half, all three of us were going home.
It was Friday, and my brain was tired.
I looked at my messy paper full of scribbled notes and asked again: So, to get on the ship that leaves on Sunday, we have to put our car into the container at the harbor on Friday, correct? A week from today?
I listened while our broker listed off other alternatives that I already knew were moot. We couldn’t ship any later, not if we didn’t want to overstay Big Emma’s Belizean temporary import permit, which ran out on the coming Friday. I pretended to listen before saying, Okay, I think we’ll do that and take the boat that leaves on Sunday. The car legally leaves the country as soon as the container is sealed, correct? The Skype window continued to pulse in optimistic baby blue. Our broker affirmed my question.
Putting Big Emma in a container on the exact day she had to exit the country? Wow, we were cutting this close indeed.
But what other choice did we have? We had heard that while it might be easy in Belize to extend personal visas, car import permits could be a whole different story. Should we gamble trying to get it extended to postpone our shipping date? That was only the first in the long line of Ifs and other question words that soaked up my brain’s thinking juices. What if we tried to get an extension and failed, or they wanted to inspect the car? I could just imagine the conversation: So, you are trying to extend your permit, but your car doesn’t run anymore and looks like total shit. Can you explain this? Yeah, that would go over well.
We wouldn’t make any earlier shipping date either, not if we wanted to actually get all of our stuff clean and dry first. We were in the middle of a two-week balancing act: get the car in good enough shape to get to the harbor by herself, with all of our stuff, ready to head for the States for a proper makeover while not overstaying any visas. A balancing act on a very saggy line and with a broken foot. But if everything went according to plan, it could work. If…
As we went through the process to get Big Emma into a container, Ifs were everywhere. Our broker – nice enough dude, he seemed, and an obligatory part of the shipping process – had a tendency to inform us of the steps of the procedure with a timing that kept us on our toes.
This document was supposed to be sent yesterday? Oh yeah, there is one more paper to sign? Wait, you can’t tell us what time we should be at the docks?
Over and over, unforeseen variables would appear with a level of unprofessionalism we were not expecting of people who dealt with international business affairs. And this was not just a problem on the Belizean side – the process felt the same for the office we were in contact with over in Miami, where we also were required to hire a broker. Our path didn’t just make us jump through hoops – we were navigating a bureaucratic obstacle course.
I stared up at the ceiling fan in our hotel room, watching as it turned circles. Whoosh. Whoosh. Renting the room with just the fan was cheaper than with the air-conditioner that now hung abandoned on the wall. I needed more information from our broker in Florida before I could continue filling out the paperwork he had sent us. But it was Sunday, and there was no one in his office. The mechanic’s shop that we had spent so much time in, cleaning Big Emma and our belongings and repairing what we could, was closed today too. Whoosh. That meant no further progress until tomorrow. Whoosh.
We had been so busy – every second had been filled with cleaning mud, testing connections, removing seats, sorting objects, and doing laundry that our brains had long turned to mush. We had to get it all done, and get it done fast – both to keep our stuff from rotting away and to make our shipping date in one week’s time. We were exhausted, but we couldn’t stop. Now, though, we were caught in the limbo of a Sunday afternoon.
I had a long list of stuff to do and I couldn’t do any of it right now. I couldn’t do much else either though – we had our computers, but I was unmotivated and tired of staring at the screen. We didn’t have any books anymore. Frustration, worry, and boredom do not make for a comforting cocktail.
Beyond the shadow of a doubt
I looked at Sven, sitting on the other end of our bed with his laptop, and spoke out loud again. I mean, we could have fixed her here, and yes that would probably be cheaper, but…My words drifted off and were swept up by the ceiling fan. Whoosh.
But it was right to repair her at home. Some instinctual part of me knew this. And my head had checked my instinct’s math: every time I asked myself the question, the answer was the same. And yet we kept on asking it.
Ever since I felt the water rising inside Big Emma, I knew – on some level – what we would do. The moment we opened the hatch – our first encounter with Big Emma after the flood when she was still laying on her side on the edge of the Sibun river – I knew it again. We wouldn’t just continue our trip after this, pretending nothing had happened. All of our beautiful wood interior was shot. Who knew what was wrong or damaged with our engine and electrical system? And then there were our other possessions, our life-on-the-road supplies. While this was of the least concern to me, we still had to replace significant portions of it. Even if we could save Big Emma, there would be mountains of work before we could continue our travels.
Luckily, we had been able to save her. But that made that workload-mountain an even bigger reality.
A question of priorities
It was easy enough to believe that anyone who saw our Bus in those first 24 hours thought she would be toast. I don’t remember who asked the question: Will you sell your car now, in Belize? Or get rid of it? While I could understand their logic, anyone who knew us well – and understood our relationship to Big Emma – would never ask it. I repeated the phrase multiple times in the next few days: We will be shipping her back to the US. If we have to bury her, we will bury her at home.
While I was relieved that we wouldn’t be burying her, that didn’t actually change much about our current situation. We were looking at months of work. I knew us, knew our Bus-repair-mentality, and I knew that we would never just whip up new cabinets in a jiffy in order to set out again as soon as possible. Big Emma deserved more, and we would give it to her. We would be replacing parts, and we would need all sorts of tools and materials.
Did we really want to do that here in Belize, paying every night in the meantime for a hotel? Carlos – our savior, a fountain of generosity – would probably let us fix it at his shop, and he had even offered that we could stay there, too. But did we want to live off of his generosity for that long? Or, even if we got to Mexico – a country that is significantly cheaper, has better access to VW parts, and has much more flexible visa regulations – were we ready to take on a project like this here, unsupported in Central America? Could we even freelance and continue supporting ourselves, if we were already time-crunching to get Big Emma back into shape as quickly as possible?
Sven and I both knew the answer. No. We knew us and we knew how we worked. If we shipped her back home, we could work on her in peace. We could offer her the attention, time, and quality of repairs that she deserved.
Of the two factors that had motivated us to begin this trip in the first place – our love for Big Emma, and our passion for travel, culture, and languages – it had always been clear which one of those two was our first priority. And that one would not work without the steadfastness of the other.
Lessons in looking on the bright side
Of course we could fix her here, Sven said, but we both know it is the smart choice to go home. And anyways, I think it will do us good. Like, personally. He was right, of course. Flash floods shake you up a bit, and we had been longing for more contact to friends and family from home even before Caro and Konsti had arrived. Repairing Big Emma in Illinois meant spending that time around loved ones. And, of course, it meant that we would have Andrew’s help fixing her up. He loved the Bus as much as we did.
But it would be cheaper here, I said, watching the fan whoosh past my field of vision. Not if we have to order all sorts of parts, Sven replied. We don’t want to get Chinese knockoffs, we need the real VW stuff. Shipping them from other places alone will probably be more expensive. I sighed, and conceded again. You’re right, Sven.
Caro and Konsti had left yesterday, and that pang of absent friends had already begun. They were continuing their trip into Guatemala. After all, the plan had been to travel with them in that direction before dropping them off at the airport in Guatemala City. Not only did they need to catch their flight, I could understand if they were tired of shoveling mud on our behalf.
And anyways, we were almost done with the tasks that they could help us with. Using Carlos’ power washer, we had finally removed the majority of the gunk from the car itself, and our surviving possessions had all been washed. Now, I mostly just had to sort them into boxes and figure out how to ship it all home. A process that was frustrating, annoying, boring, all at the same time.
Compound that with waves of guilt, sadness, and regret, and it was no wonder I wasn’t sleeping. I had had to borrow some of Konsti’s sleeping pills; my nights, despite my exhaustion, had been bloated with those Ifs, and offered no peace right now. Rest just wasn’t enough to be restful. I was glad our persistence was enough to make up for it, for now, but the sleeping pills helped, too.
Almost, but not quite
On Wednesday morning, we walked over to Carlos’ shop. Today, we would drive Big Emma to Belize City and prepare to put her in a container on Friday. As glad as I was that Sven and Carlos had gotten her running, I didn’t trust her recovering self quite yet. I hoped she would make it the two hours we needed her to go today. We went to say our goodbyes to Carlos, a man we couldn’t thank or pay enough for the support he had unabashedly shown us in the last two weeks. We literally could not have done it without him.
If you get stuck, the car breaks, you call me, okay? He said. Even in the final moments, his kindness didn’t let up. We promised him that we would, and turned to leave.
We got into Big Emma, and started the ignition. As we drove out of Carlos’ driveway on less-than-steady wheels, it was freeing. As we loaded the rest of our belongings into our Bus in the hotel courtyard, things felt almost as they should be.
But they weren’t. Big Emma would be repaired, yes, but she’d never be the same as before.
By closing time
We arrived in Belize City without incident, and quartered ourselves into a guesthouse with gated parking. We had spent two anxious days sitting on the bed, waiting for our broker to get in touch and tell us what time we needed to be at the harbor on Friday. Now the day was here and it was 12 PM. We still had not been contacted with instructions.
What should we do? Do we just sit here and wait? Sven asked me, for the 100th time today.
I don’t know, I told him for the 100th time. I glanced at my phone. No missed calls. If we fuck this up, Big Emma will overstay her visa. That would just suck.
We could just drive over to the harbor and wait there? Maybe put some pressure on the agent to get things together if he knows we are waiting for him?
Yeah. Let’s go. It’s better than waiting here.
So we waited at the harbor, having procured an over-the-phone promise that we would be meeting our broker there. At 4 PM, he finally showed up. I rushed to cancel Big Emma’s visa while Sven drove her into the container, the whole process exploding in a flurry of stuff that had to be done immediately. For the second time since this story began, I realized I had forgotten to say goodbye to Big Emma. Although I was more confident this time that she wouldn’t be lost to a watery grave, I continued to think of her safety.
I returned to our meeting spot and checked my email on my phone. A new message from our contact at the shipping company had arrived 15 minutes ago. Please be advised, it read, your payment has to be made by closing today or your vehicle will not be shipped. Our opening hours are Monday – Friday, 8 AM to 5 PM.
I looked at the clock: 4:38 PM. Goddamn it everybody! I guess we have to get a move on. We rushed across town to pay the shipping company – in cash, another detail they had informed us of only that morning – before rushing onward to pay our broker.
By nightfall, we had returned to our hotel, sin Bus. It was odd, and felt wrong. Everything was different. Although we were days from flying home ourselves, one of the most important elements in our lives over the last year and a half was just….absent. She left a hole that could only be replaced by our own perseverance.
We spent the next four days as normal, average tourists. We took a boat to Caye Caulker. The island is a popular tourist destination located along Belize’s famous barrier reef. We figured we might as well make the best of the situation – with Big Emma, we wouldn’t have even considered going to an island. But we were practicing looking on the bright side these days.
Besides playing telephone with our broker and continuing to sort things out on the Miami side, we didn’t have a lot to do. We listened to podcasts, played checkers, drank a beer on the beach. We made pancakes for breakfast and avoided spending money. But we couldn’t shake everything else.
We took the boat back in time for me to catch a ride to the airport. Big Emma was scheduled to arrive in Miami tomorrow. I would fly to Florida today and spend the night a family friends’ house. Sven would travel to Cancún and fly to Belgium from there – it was the cheapest flight to Europe we could find.
Our car dropped Sven off at the bus station before bringing me to the airport. I suddenly realized: In the last year and a half, this is the first time Sven, Big Emma, and I have been in three different locations. There was something eerie about that thought. Along with it came so many more thoughts that I had been too tired to process.
I was on the last leg of the race. Finally. My brain didn’t want to make any more important decisions.
I was grateful to our friends and their support, and to my dad, who arrived in Florida the next morning. He had driven all the way from Illinois, overnight, to assist me. After another few days of harrying bureaucracy, Big Emma was finally on a tow truck on her way back to Illinois.
A few days later, we had all made it back to the Midwest (except, of course, Sven, who was on his way to Germany). The tow truck dropped her off in the dirveway, and my dad and I pushed Big Emma into her spot in the garage.
I looked at the scratches on her driver’s side, pondered her broken fog lights and ruined cabinets. I contemplated the changes in our lives that had taken place in the last three weeks, considered my newfound sense of purposelessness and sudden lack of direction. I patted her on the passenger door. I told you, Big Emma, I said. If any Bus can do this, you can. I told you we’d get you home.
Big Emma’s broken lights didn’t hide that glint. I never doubted it, she said. I’m gonna rest now.