Next stop: El Paso… I mean Sierra Blanco

As we were leaving Van Horn with an inexplicable crippled engine, we resigned ourselves to the idea of inching along the access road until we could find a mechanic who could help us. While the fellas in Van Horn had tried earnestly to help us, they had neither the facilities, nor the willingness to bite off more than they could chew delving into Harvey’s ancient inner workings. The general consensus was: get to El Paso. They have everything there.

So we trundled off down I-10, wary of the unknown rumbles coming from under the hood, and dreading the 30 mile stretch of desert between us and the next town. We couldn’t go very fast and there was no consistent side road, so we were relegated to the far right lane of the 75mph highway. Every semi that hurtled past rocked Harvey out and then back as he was sucked in by the vacuum. It was a very peaceful time for all of us.


Another tire? Jesus, could anything else go wrong? I pulled the rig over and at this point we all just started laughing. We had been awake for odd hours for almost a day and laughing was about all we could do. It started small and grew, but soon we were all three just leaning in silent laughter at the absurdity of it all.

After we wound down, I walked around the side and, sure enough, the back left tire had blown a tread. Stefan and I stood outside for a minute considering our options. There was no sense returning to Van Horn. We were 20 miles away and we knew already how limited their resources were. We had a spare tire, but our jack wasn’t heavy duty enough for Harvey’s girth. So the only thing that made sense was to try to make the 10 miles into the next town, Sierra Blanco.

We were about to get back in the car when I noticed a vague smell of piss. I had a suspicion where it was coming from so I walked to the back of the rig and looked underneath. Sure enough there was a gaping hole in our blackwater tank, the tank that holds our used toilet water. When the tread had blown off it flipped up with such a force that it had smashed a hole in the plastic tank. I wasn’t even shocked at this point. This was just one more addition to our comedy of obstacles.

So we limp down the highway on our bald tire and finally make it into the outskirts of town. There were a couple of shops that sell tires and parts and such and another that had a garage. We pull up alongside one of them, and Stefan walks in to ask to borrow a jack. Apparently the man inside wouldn’t let us borrow a jack, but he was willing to charge us $45 to use it. Needless to say Stefan walked across the street to the other shop and the man there offered a jack for $35… just to borrow it. Over the next ten minutes or so, Stefan walked back and forth across the street letting the sand sharks indirectly bid for use of their jack. After several trips, he settled with one of them for $20.

I backed in to the garage and climbed in the back, psyching myself up for the inevitable ordeal changing this tire would be. I grabbed some tools, hopped out, and walked in to the garage. It was there I met Payo.

In the middle of the garage was a giant tractor tire on its side, and on top of the tire was a large chair ripped out of a car. Payo sat atop his throne with a .22 rifle propped on his shoulder, sipping a giant fast food soda. His two granddaughters sat on either side of him in similar seats. He stared at us silently while we struggled to remove and replace the tires. It was disturbingly regal and creepy as hell.

After watching us try in vain for 15 minutes to remove the busted tire, I guess he figured we weren’t any threat to him and actually offered to help. He put the gun away somewhere and got out his air powered impact drill to remove the bolts. Compared to the tire iron, the drill made short work of the lug nuts.

Next came the jack, the one we’d bartered for. The back left tire was an awkward one to get to, and the range of the jack was limited. Stefan and I took turns pumping the lever and helping Payo replace the tire. Not only was it exhausting, but to get to the lever we had to lean right up against our busted septic tank. Joy.

We eventually got the spare on and put the bald tire where the spare had been. We thanked Payo and paid him; a little extra since he’d gotten down on the ground and sweat with us. And then we turned our backs on Sierra Blanco and continued the slow crawl into El Paso. We still had exhaust problems, but at least we had six tires on the ground. It would be a long process, but there was nowhere to go but west.


Van Horn, the Outer Limits

If there were ever a place to have your RV start sputtering, shuddering, and slowing to a crawl, that place is Van Horn, Texas. As soon as we pulled in off of the highway, it was clear to see that we would be well taken care of here. From the abandoned buildings to the packs of stray dogs we felt warm, welcome, and most of all, safe. After pulling in to the second seemingly open, but ultimately deserted auto shop, Stefan decided to venture down the street to what appeared to be a Post Office. Mel and I wished him well and assured him that, if he were to meet his gruesome and/or supernatural demise there, he would surely be missed.

After five tense minutes during which we recounted each episode of the Twilight Zone that had begun similarly to this, Stefan emerged unharmed with news of a local mechanic who might be able to help us.

As soon as we pulled up to the locked gate, another car pulled in along side us. It was Bill, and he was there to open the gates. While Bill would ultimately not be able to fix our problem, or even diagnose it, he sure did try. He had us rev the gas while he poked around the engine. He even took it for a gripping test drive up the access road and back where, I shit you not, he checked his text messages while flooring it. Now luckily, due to our unknown problem, “flooring it” only brought us up to 45 mph. Nonetheless it was comforting that he was so open with his driving habits in front of us. I felt like we were old friends. Once it became clear that neither he nor his “associate” could explain the cause of our loss of power, he sent us to another mechanic a few blocks down Main St.

After waiting for 45 minutes in heat and uncertainty, Juan arrived and we went over the description of our troubles again. After just over 400 miles of driving, our RV started slowing up hills, dropping our top speed from 65, to 55, then 45 mph. After a certain point the gas pedal just became unresponsive. Juan also decided to take Harvey for a spin around the town. Somehow though, after sitting still for a while, Harvey was running smoothly again. There are few things more frustrating than taking a car to a mechanic, and having the problem disappear as soon as he touches it. Nevertheless he made some suggestions given what we could tell him about the trouble. And after more tinkering, said we would probably be fine to drive the remaining 120 miles to El Paso. So we thanked him, gave him a slice of delicious crumb cake our dear friend Saleh had baked for us, and went on our way.

Little did we know, we would be halted agaiun less than a mile outside of the city, this time of a totally different nature. But Sierra Blanco is another story, to be typed in another coffee shop. Now is the time for tacos and sleep.

It is my solemn hope, that of the few citizens of the glorious township of Van Horn that use the internet, that even fewer of them understand sarcasm. And if by some cruel twist of fate I am wrong, I apologize to both of you.


Where the motivation started – Part II


The grey clouds hovered atop the monstrous natural figure. Its flat form and staggered frame towered over the nearly 4 million who live in Cape Town. We made it to our last destination on the African continent, but far from our last eye-opening experience. A friend and I headed straight for the airport to travel to Johannesburg and it turned out that a couple of other students were on the same flight and staying at a local backpacker (hostel). The owner was picking them up, so we took the opportunity to tag along. On the way, the owner directed our attention to multiple townships off the side of the highway. Once we parked, he pointed a couple streets closer to the city to show how integrated the townships are with mainstream housing.

I ate cow tongue and spätzle for the first time and found it delicious. This taste, however, went somewhat sour when I spoke with the waitresses about their experience growing up in South Africa after Apartheid. Despite the desire to integrate, they felt that the government was making it easier to discriminate against white people. Specifically in the workplace. They brought up The Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003 and the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2007, which were established to create more equality within the working class and bring a rejuvenation to all those who had been repressed by the Apartheid movement. The implications that resulted were an increase in uneducated and under-qualified employees and a brain-drain of educated and qualified individuals. The women mentioned that the government has not focused on building education and has more so focused on “legally” tipping the scales to favor blacks over whites.

Need for focus on education

Need for coming together as equals

As we drifted away from Cape Town, Table Mountain, and the entire continent of Africa, it was apparent that we wouldn’t see land for 12 days. 12 full days. Only ocean. But it was more than that. For those next 12 days, we grew closer as a community, embracing the relationships that were already sprouting. Some of us engaged in our very own, Atlantic film festival where we created an original video within the constraint of the crossing to Argentina. As we filmed, studied, and let our eyes drift across the constant horizon, it was apparent that we were a nation floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Need for companionship

Find wifi – not a constant goal of mine, but I hadn’t been online since Ireland. I touched base with my cousin who sent me the contact information for a friend of his who lived in Argentina. Within 5 minutes of emailing his friend, I received a response.

“I want to let you know that I live in Mar del Plata, city located 400 km from the capital, I have to travel to Buenos Aires the next week, but I could try to move that to the current week to be able to meet with you.”

Rather than meet him in Buenos Aires, I journeyed to the south to Mar del Plata. For the day and a half that I spent there, he took off of work and showed me his city, describing it as “the Miami of Argentina”. I was visiting a few weeks before beach season, so as we walked above the beach, he pointed and spoke about the busiest spots. He spoke in English, broken English, but in English. His goal is to learn how to communicate in English fluently so that he is desirable to U.S. companies.


“Because, the Argentinian Peso is not stable and when I work with U.S. company…eh…companies, I receive a stable U.S. dollar.”

Need for stable currency

Need for communication bridges

We crept into Rio de Janero’s Guanabara Bay as the sun grew from its blended reflection to the east. A plane flew over us and touched down on the landing pad that abutted the bay. Beyond the bridge, to the starboard side, we noticed a brigade of large ships. It was later found out that their purpose is to clean the pollution in the bay before the 2016 Olympics. (

Need for proper disposal of trash

Need for clean waterways

With Brazil to the south, we began our 11 day passage to Cuba, and at that point, we were accustomed to long-distance travel. Along the stretch, the films from the Atlantic Film Festival were presented in front of the entire shipboard community. The effort exerted to create each film was noticeable …except for a couple. For the following few days, “your film was great” could be heard as the video artists walked about the ship – they created a connection on the ship.

Need for creativity

Need for collective support

This was it. The point that seemed so far away when we were first accepted into Semester at Sea. The time that seemed as if it should never come.

Our last port.

It hit me as I walked down the gangway with news cameras recording each disembarking step. I immediately reverted to the first steps I had taken when arriving in St. Petersburg. How much had I grown? Was I more confident? Had it already been 3 months? Reporters swarmed us as we headed toward charter buses. As a requirement of our educational visit, we were to be taken to the University of Havana, to engage in a ceremony with the administration, and to sit through a lecture about Cuba.

As much as I enjoyed the interactions and frank conversations about Cuba, I soon developed a suspicion that made me question everything they were saying. We later found out that in order to meet with Semester at Sea students, teachers and students of the University of Havana went through training that would teach them how to act around us. Precautionary measures, right?

I went out to a bar the second night and saw a couple men looking at girls in my group. I decided it was best to distract them with my presence, so I approached them and introduced myself. I sat with them for over 2 hours (we were kicked out because of closing time) discussing the real life of Cuban citizens. A paycheck of 30 CUC – equivalent to $30 – per month denoted a high paying position, and they were in no position to receive that. The only reason they were enjoying one beer and smoking one cigar each was because it was one of the friend’s birthdays. They spoke of the lack of food they received from the government, the restriction to location on the island, and the limit to advancement within employment. They yearned to be free and to experience different walks of life.

Our last post-port on the ship brought out stories that helped confirm my suspicion. A couple of Semester at Sea students asked a store owner about a shop they were interested in visiting. The owner told them that he would show them the way, but to follow at a distance as to not tip off undercover officers that he was helping Americans. The undercover officers wore striped shirts and would detain citizens if they believed they were jeopardizing the state’s intentions. I remembered seeing these men in striped shirts periodically.

Furthermore, a group of students from the ship went to a gathering hosted by a man just outside the city. This man desired to enlighten his fellow citizens about humanitarian laws that were not being followed in Cuba. Subsequently, the students arrived in time to walk past the police barricades and witness this man being beaten and detained for his remarks.

Need for the adoption of many humanitarian rights

Need for freedom of speech

Needless to say, I have seen a great amount of need in the world. What if I choose not to act on what I have seen? What if I sit here letting my legs go numb? Would it be right to continue living my life like all my friends who accepted jobs in the megaplex of the D.C. area (no offense)? My future “vacations” will not consist of the typical tourist traps, but of action with the intent to build better communities. Is there a way to rid this world of the need that I believe should be changed? I don’t know. I choose to believe there is, so let’s see what we can do.
I am still traveling on this road have a deep desire to make all the difference. When stepping back onto American soil for the first time in nearly 4 months, I realized I had a need to act on my experiences. I will continue to chronicle the need that I see where I travel and offer suggestions and actions to solve the problems.



Where the motivation started – Part I

I graduated from James Madison University on May 4th, 2013. My pursuit of many years of the educational victory had ended. But what was next? Fortunately, I had applied, and been accepted to, Semester at Sea. I was about to embark on yet another semester of classes – only these classes would be taken while traveling the world on a ship.

The day that we embarked from Southampton, England, I lost my phone. What a blessing! Off the grid on a ship, and now off the grid without my phone. There was no excuse NOT to live in the moment. So I did. In every country to which we traveled.

I found myself taking note of the need that resided in each of the countries on our itinerary. I remember stepping into Russia – our FIRST port – and being overwhelmed by the idea that it was illegal to be gay.

Need for equality

In Germany, I went with a group of students to volunteer on a foster care farm. I should have helped paint the walls of their barn or helped assemble their new soccer (futbol) goal. Instead, I spent the whole time playing with the children. I was so intrigued by the life the children and I brought out in each other, it felt like a waste to ignore it. I knew then and there that children had to be part of my future.

Need for foster care parents

Need for children in my life

As I hitchhiked my way from Belgium through France, I couldn’t help but inhale the curling lines of smoke that drifted off the ends of so many cigarettes. The gnarled images on the cigarette cartons made me consider Europeans either as ignorant or as challengers of death.

Need for cleaner air

We arrived in the home of my ancestors, Ireland. It even reminded me of my childhood in Seattle. The gray skies and luscious green grass gave me a sense of security and comfort. However, that comfort dissipated after learning about the country’s massive debt to Germany and France; the economy’s instability; and the price for beer. I even read on posters that there was going to be a vote to eliminate the Seanad (Ireland’s Senate) which could save over €20 Million per year. There was great discussion about this, but many of the people with whom I spoke were unknowing of the entirety of the consequences.

Need for greater political awareness

Need for greater economic independence

Yo solo hablo un poco de español – I only speak a little Spanish – and no portuguese. The language barrier was present once we docked on the Iberian Peninsula. Within a day of visiting Lisbon, a friend and I started our journey to Granada, Spain via hitchhiking. We were fortunate enough to acquire rides without being incarcerated, unlike a shipmate of ours, and with a few drivers who spoke English. Portugal’s economy was declining rapidly and many people were losing their jobs, including many of the family members of our second driver. The Portuguese economy is on a downward trend due to a decline in small, mom and pop businesses who makeup many of their total businesses. Even though anyone can create a company in 10 minutes and with about €50, many choose to work with those who are close and who they trust. This restricts the potential for foreign monetary exchanges and limits their business possibilities to revive the economy.

Need for a more globally focused entrepreneurial incentive program

Crossing into Spain on the A22 Highway was a glorious sight as we bounded over the connecting bridge. We were introduced to the beautiful country with a very California-esque feel. I have been to California; I have lived in California; I have known Californians who work very hard. But in Spain, it is a common expectation that someone else will pay one’s bills. I am sure there are plenty of hard-working Spaniards, but that doesn’t acquit the entire country from being part of the PIGS – this is in reference to the lot of European countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) that were awarded loans from mainly France and Germany and ate them up without any real return.

Need for action

I remember waking up and looking out my porthole to see the shipping containers labeled “Marsa Moroc”. It was my first sight of Africa. The group with whom I traveled disembarked the ship and immediately headed for Marrakech. Taking a bullet train is something I have yet to experience in Japan and this train was far from that. When it finally pulled up, I had a sudden rush of adrenaline as my dad’s stories flooded back into my head. Every night before bed, Papa P would provide the most tantalizing adventures from his worldly travels. He had spent over a month driving through Morocco when he was a few years older than am and it changed his life.

Upon arriving, our tour guide mentioned that we would have some time in Marrakech to wander the Madina. This was where Papa P turned into a bargainer – his skills would later be perfected in India. I attempted to video a dancer in the square, but she automatically rejected my recording and demanded that I pay her.

We traveled to the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains where the native Berber people lived. For the next two days, we hiked and lived with the Berber, eating food they prepared for us. Good food. Food that grew in healthy gardens and fields. Children approached me, as they once approached my father, asking for “Bom Bom” (candy) with scattered-teeth smiles. Many of the children’s teeth had seen better days. That did not stop them from having fun. The boys in the village followed each of my footsteps. Whatever I did, they copied. Papa P told me stories of when he was my age and danced with kids in Morocco. The connection I felt with Papa P standing in a place that he had perhaps once stood was overwhelming. I was so glad to live in those moments and not have a phone.

Need for toothbrushes and dental awareness

Need for children in my life

Our second stop in Africa was Takoradi, Ghana. A bus met us as we disembarked the ship and took us to the front gate of the working port. As we approached the divider, we could see a crowd of Ghanaians waiting for our arrival. We stepped towards the exit and the commotion from the Ghanaians increased. Our arms were grabbed and pulled in each direction. Ours ears were flooded with calls of “My friend” and “Donate to my futbol team”. Shirts were held in our faces. Bracelets with our names were immediately crafted once our names were revealed. I felt my privacy diminish and my anxiety increase. I grabbed my friend’s arms and marched towards a cab driver who distanced himself from his compatriots. We were off to the city center.

As the day’s progressed in Takoradi and then in Tema and Accra, it was extremely apparent how our influence was demanded. Multiple children came up to me and my friends, tugging at our shirttails. “Can I have your phone number? I want you to pay for my education”. A government is only as powerful as its ability to follow through with its agreements. Ghanaian Government would like to follow through on their commitment in their constitution that claims

“All persons shall have the right to equal educational opportunities and facilities and with a view to achieving the full realization of that right-

(a)   basic education shall be free, compulsory and available to all…” (

This is not always possible considering the government’s resource distribution or its list of priorities. That being said, many children within Ghana do not have access to education despite their high demand for it.

When returning to the ship, a group of students presented about their trip to the Agbogbloshie – the world’s largest electronic waste dump. It sits on the mouth of a Korle Lagoon polluting all of the water that meanders beneath it. Through pictures and videos, we absorbed the lifestyles of hundreds of people whose job description consists of burning electronics for the purpose of retrieving valuable metals. There was even a meat market being built on the outskirts of the trash dump.

Need for access to education

Need for proper recycling education

Read More by clicking here…