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98# A dance with oil

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

- You see it?

- I see dirt and oil

- Haha no. Look beyond that. I got it!

I find dirty nails utterly disgusting. In the van life, your car is your home. You are always in contact with dirt and oil. You could wear gloves and all but if you work with your hands, sooner or later you get your nails dirty. And even the industrial blue soap that mechanics use does not get rid of the stain right away.

I landed in Cancun and immediately embarked on a 24-hour bus ride south. La Chichona had stayed at the Guatemalan border when they didn’t let me enter Mexico three months ago. I walked through the large garage door and stopped, moved by the sight. She was there, waiting for me. My nakama, my companion through happiness and misery, my home. Never had I thought I would have feelings for a rusty metal box.

The van life meant adventures, travel partners, misty mountains and hidden paradises. The first stop was San Cristobal de las Casas in the green mountains of Chiapas. But before the fun, a long list of chores was awaiting. I had to get la Chichona back in shape for the road.

Kurt, a Canadian traveler, was also staying in the garage. He rode from Calgary to Belize on his 650 BMW motorcycle. Kurt was at ease with solo travel. He drank Mezcal like a local and was way too comfortable for someone who knew five words in Spanish. His presence was reassuring. Handyman and helpful, Kurt embodied the wild spirit of Western Canada.

He helped me with the basics of car mechanics. The battery, setting up the jack etc. things I was quick to forget. Every item on the list was a mission. The most important first, I made three copies of all my paperwork and crossed the road to the Mexican customs building. Half an hour later I had the blue label stuck on the windshield. A new car permit for six months, la Chichona could finally enter Mexico.

The tropical heat, the rain and inertia had run down la Chichona. The back door was jammed. All systems were down. Stagnant waters stank and moist invaded the inside. The cleaning felt like fighting the Hydra. Every crossed chore gave birth to new ones, harder ones. It took me three days, lots of sweat, a few blows and constant dirty nails to get through the list. Kurt’s cheerfulness lightened my attitude. Not even a week in and I hated the van life already.

We were both leaving the next morning and had a little goodbye party to celebrate our hard work. We shared travel stories around his bike to the beat of the Muddy Waters. Kurt took his bike apart, piece by piece, punctuating every move with a sip of Mezcal and a head nod. He played detective with the bike pieces, scanning every part under the weak yellow light. He dissembled, scrubbed, and reassembled in a smooth, almost graceful fashion. The Mezcal and the music got his body waving, circling his bike like a Indian around his totem. He was absorbed in his work, his hands full of oil, his eyes shining. Kurt was in the zone.

Travelling by motorbike is on another level. You are on your own, unshielded from the elements, at the mercy of danger. You must be self-reliant, solitary and comfortable with discomfort. Running water and electricity are an opulence. Human connection, a luxury. My van life was a piece of cake compared to travelling by bike. Yet, now that I was back at it...

There was something about the van life that I hated. It was not mechanics, it was everything around it. The anxiety of breaking down, the frustration, the unasked hassle, the dirty nails. But above all, it was that choking inadequacy you feel when you face a problem and there is nothing you can do. That feeling of helplessness that calls all your life decisions into question. That feeling that only someone else can appease.

Kurt did not see that. He saw his problems like a game, an exciting riddle to solve. When he held the oily rotor with his black nails and shining smile, I knew I was missing something. It was something you are born with, a peculiar form of intelligence. Kurt had it. I did not. Living the van life for a year made that clear.

Halfway through the bottle we called it a night. He dried his oily hands with a rag and set up his tent. I returned to la Chichona, brushed my teeth, and washed my hands. I was grateful to have running water, electricity, a roof. Sleep came easy. Despite all the challenges ahead, I was grateful knowing that at least I could go to bed with clean nails.


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