Working on the Road

Working on the road, create as you go.

Brazilian marchant travelerA large number of overlanders fund their travels by working on the road, from country to country. They prove that a very long, overland journey needn’t consume your life savings. Nor is it required to sell your house.  And in fact there are many strategies for financing a two-year trip around the world – at first glance it seems incomprehensible that you could live cheaper than being at home but its true.

For example there are the social networks such as wwoofing and couchsurfing that will reduce the costs of your board and lodging towards zero. You also have the opportunity to work via the internet, either the job that you’ve always done or something new. More traditionally, of course, there are seasonal jobs around the world that have always hired travelers. But, focusing on overlanders, crossing continents in their own vehicles, living slowly but steadily, every second and inch of the way, there is one mobile occupation that is favored: the making, trading and selling of handicrafts.

Hand-made jewelry display







Before we look at the lives of  two random traveling handicraft merchants I met in Panama City, it’s worth dwelling on why you would want to work around the world at all. Because all of those activities listed in the paragraph above have one core advantage: they all provide you with experiences of distant cultures and faraway lands that you’d never likely to have simply passing through on the consumer end of society. Life experiences that you’ll never forget. So, it’s your choice then, whether to swap a couple of hours tied to a desk, the wrong side of a boring commute home, for a day in the life of Fabianno or Marcus…

You don’t need any experience.

Basically, there are two sides to this game: getting and selling. First you get the stuff; either buying basic materials and making things yourself or taking your time to find the perfect bulk purchase of ready-made handicrafts. And then you sell the stuff: either you import it to the suitable place of your choice where they might be some shops or specific markets. Or you can build a portable stall, display your wares and wander the beaches and the bars as you travel along. Now, the first thing you might worry about is the fact that you’ve never created and sold a handicraft in your life. But you don’t have to worry about that – everyone is making it up as they go along.  Before he swung out onto the roads through Central America in his VW Combi, Fabianno Crespilho, from São Paulo, Brazil, was studying economics. And Marcos (the guy with the biker’s beard) was working with Gilette in Argentina . Neither of them had much idea about handicrafts before they left but they didn’t let that stop them.

Starting his journey in Mexico City, Fabianno drove down to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to sell beautifully polished stones to cruise ship tourists.At first, they were ready-made pieces that he’d bought –  after a while, he learnt how to cut and polish his own, staying with the stone seller’s family in Palenque. Over the next months he perfected the art of creating jewelry around the stones using cotton thread or silver wire. And no less importantly he mastered the mercantile techniques of exchanging his creations for hard cash.

You have to be flexible.

Marcos Guillermo VoltzMarcos Guillermo Voltz, 23 years old, set out on a Yamaha 125, with his girlfriend, Mariela riding a second bike, last year.  (Their site is here). Working on the road for them, has brought them north, from Misiones, Argentina, through Brazil and across the Darien Gap to Panama. For them, the important lesson learnt has been to take every opportunity as it comes. In Brazil, they were offered the chance to look after a small hotel and this gave them the time to practice the handicraft skills they had recently picked up. Moving into Venezuela, no one seemed much interested in their handcrafted jewelry – instead of setting up their stall in Caracas they found a store that wanted to buy the coconut beads that they had picked up for cheap in Brazil. So, you have to be ready for anything. Sometimes they try and sell a few pieces to raise the money for a trip to the gas station or supermarket – just a few hours by the side of a busy road with their bracelets mounted on a cloth-covered tube and they might have the few dollars they need. Other times you have to be prepared to linger in a place like Panama City where there’s enough people with money around to make it worthwhile settling down for a month or two into a routine of making jewelry during the week and selling at the weekend around the bars and restaurants of the old town.

Flexibility is required, too, when dealing with your customers and people you meet. Setting the store out on the street can act like an invitation to chat and meet new people. You might get suggestions or offers to sell your stuff somewhere else, somewhere to stay or just a nice welcome. Or they could be drunk: Fabianno once sold the hat he was wearing to a tourist who couldn’t focus on anything but clearly wanted to buy something.

Don’t worry yourself about other people

Indigenous handicrafts from Panama

Panama City is a good place to make money and raise the funds to continue the journey and there is a lively scene of traveling handicraft merchants adding to the more regular offerings from the local Panamanians. So this was my next question for them; didn’t they ever have problems from the local handicraft sellers? Maybe, people working hard to make money for all their family would resent the sudden appearance of an outsider?

Everyone I talked to rejected this idea – none of them had experienced anything more than a few bad looks from their fellow market people – it would be more of an issue if you were to sell the same kind of things as they are, said Fabianno, but, if you make your own things, this is unlikely to happen. There’s certainly a good feeling between the half dozen traveler-merchants I meet, a feeling of camaraderie. They are working at night, long after the locals have packed up their stalls. Generally, it’s true to say that a market person wants to be with other market people. That’s how a good handicraft scene gets started – a greater variety of things for sale will attract more customers to the market as a whole and everyone benefits.

For Westerners – Europeans and Americans brought up in a world of rules and regulations, permits and permissions – the legality of setting a stall up and earning money in a foreign country may be an issue. It must be remembered, however, that most of the world is not so strictly organized. Neither Marcos nor Fabianno have had any problems with the police. Occasionally, you’ll be moved on – it’s better to ask other people who are selling before you start, says Fabianno. Crucially, he added, don’t be shy or too worried;  if you’re in the wrong place, you’ll get the message soon enough. The authorities in Latin America seem especially tolerant though: In Mexico, some immigration officers started to ask Fabianno questions when they found him selling but, in the end, they bought two pairs of earrings from him and left.

Working on the road, create as you go.

How much you’ll make

On a good day in a good place like Cancun, Mexico or Bocas del Toro, Panama , Fabianno can make $100 selling his jewelry that cost $10 and a couple of days to produce. He has a wide range of pieces to sell – their price dependent on the size of the stone in the center – just one of the larger ones would make him $50. Marcos just can’t say how much he makes; sometimes $30, sometimes $50, sometimes $5. He’s selling bracelets and earrings made by knotting and weaving cotton thread and these are easy to sell at night but he also sells small printed pictures – photos taken from the journey – and those sell better during the day. It just depends on when he wants to work and how many hours he feels like putting in. They try and set themselves a target: In Panama it costs 16$ to 20$ a day to live so that is the minimum target.

Handicraft traveling with your own vehicle

On the face of it, since a merchant-traveler is making money from people, it might be better to stay in hotels and travel on public transport. It could be said that having your own vehicle means you can carry around more materials and tools; it means being able to buy lots of a certain thing in a place where it is cheap and taking it to sell somewhere else; and, of course, if you’ve got a four-wheeler you have your own space where you feel comfortable working. The real advantages of having your own vehicle, though, comes from the different experiences and opportunities you have traveling around – so when that is in addition to the challenge of creating and selling handicrafts, your trip is surely going to be the trip of a lifetime.

Life in Panama City

Gratuitous picture of our dog
No one told us that life in Panama City would be unforgettable. I can’t remember meeting many people who’d ever spent some time in this capital city. Now, I know, we’ve only been here a couple of months ourselves and a lot of that time got spent waiting for the rain to stop and the massive puddles to drain away but we know it’s a beautiful concrete jungle – one of the few that have made us think of sticking around a lot longer. So I just want to say what it is we like about Panama City – you know, before we leave; give the place a chance to prove me wrong.

A little back story: We first decided to extend our stay in Panama City  when we were in Nicaragua – it’s not often we think so far ahead but there was a possibility of a ferry to take us to Colombia; it hadn’t started yet but the word was ‘at the end of summer’. OK, we thought, let’s check out volunteering with The Muskoka Foundation, maybe do an Earthcircuit exhibition, go watch some ships on the canal, and then, hopefully, there’s a ferry ready to start. Fast forward till now and we’ve more or less accomplished our Panama projects but still no cheap boat. Turns out that ‘the end of summer’ in a tropical country means, like, flippin’ never. So the thing is, we’ve kind of fallen in love with Panama City. Like all great loves, this was unexpected and it’s going to end with us forking out a fortune for us to escape to South America; getting charged a packet for the privilege of being thrown out of the promised land.

This is financially very frustrating because Panama City is full of money. You can see that as soon as you cross the canal that brings in millions of dollars a day, rain or shine, global recession or not; zip past the renovating Old Town (most of the time they’re actually using real bricks); crawl through a mess of new highway, fly-over and elevated-section construction; and first see the herd of skyscrapers that have congregated on the city beaches, like very expensive but mostly empty, steel and glass animals pressed up to a watering hole, the lower-rise urban environment stretching for miles around behind them. I don’t know why it is exactly – but it seems the whole world has come to buy a little bit of Panama City and it kind of reminds me of London. And while most maps show London near the center of the world, Panama City is at the crossroads of the world: the junction between the Atlantic and Pacific – it would be the mid-point between South America and North America but because they’ve neglected to build a road through the pristine jungle of the Darién, and have failed to provide a ferry to go around it, this north-south route becomes more a staging post of northbound narco-traffic rather than southbound overlanding regular traffic. Not only, then, the crossroads of the world but a good place to handle great quantities of questionable money. As the expensive but mostly empty skyscrapers suggest.

Other reasons for all the cash that’s come to Panama includes the fact that they use US dollars here, saying like this is an international city, an inter-zone where a million ravenous wallets from around the world can come talk the same language. Also, let’s not forget, the ready supply of poor people to make, construct and launder whatever dream project you may have: It’s through their efforts that there is anything here at all. The question is whether they are helping to build themselves out of a home or if they are part of Panama City’s future.

We’re told that the typical wage is about $300 a month. Rent is like $150 a month, food another $150. Of course, individual circumstances will dictate the reality but those sorts of numbers at least suggest survival is possible, even easy in this town. And with that comfort zone, a person might have the energy to think out how to get a better deal on life. It’s this whiff of possibility, a creative energy that powers something fundamental in this city – that great urban spirit of… how to describe it… that city life.

To wrap it all up, then, let’s go back to the dollars and that damn boat. This is our dream, our one last project in this place of possibilities, our last chance at playing the game of life in Panama City: We lose $2500 because there’s no ferry, only the freight ships can take us on around the world. We made $110 already from selling a couple of photographs to our fellow city-dwellers and we got $4 for the aluminium cans I collected. So either we sell 47 more photographs or find another 93 600 cans to recycle. And we have just ten days left before we have to hand over our truck at the port and leave for Colombia. Can we balance the books at least a little bit? Can we do it?

The World in Hot Water

Steamy hot water on a frozen day.
This photo was not taken in Panama.

If taking a break from Panama City is a good thing to do; driving up to the cool of El Valle, around 200 klicks back west, and immersing yourself in the hot water pools of Anton Valley’s Agua Calientes, ranks as a very good thing to do. Some overlanders told us that some scientist living in the area believes the famous pools are, in fact, artificially heated and the mud, that you put on your face, is imported. Well, the water could do with a tad more heating, to be honest – and it wouldn’t be a bad thing that they wouldn’t be 100% naturally hot spring fed. I mean, sure, such waters are generally loaded with minerals and prized because of that – but the heat of the water is something else: All over the world, people like to get hot and wet. Whether that’s achieved electrically, by burning wood, pouring water on hot rocks or utilising the heat of the planet itself –  energy that derives from the web of gravity twisting and turning a billion billion tons of earth around the sun…

The universal custom of immersing the body in hot water, or the feeling of sweating liquid all over the skin, can be seen the world over. Saunas, of course, can be as dry as a Swedish bastu to as steamy as a Native American sweat lodge and on to the complete submersion of a hamam, jimjilbang or, indeed, a bath.

However, they all seem to serve the same purpose in society – to cleanse, heal and relax the mind, body and community.

Six notable hot water types of establishment from around the world:

Krazy Korean. The Korean jimjilbang comes in a wide variety of guises from neighbourhood bath house to 24-hour entertainment complex.  A good example of a modern establishment is the World Cup Stadium Spa tucked away under the World Cup Stadium in Seoul.  $7 buys entrance to the spa for 4 hours. First, you’re in the grooming, washing and heat treatment zone which is sexually segregated. Everyone is wandering around naked; first they have shower and relax in the hot tubs, dipping periodically into a cold pool. Here there is also infra-red dry rooms and big muscly people ready to give you a rub down or massage. After this, they spend a while having a shave, haircut, manicure, etc where most of the tools and products come free. Then you put on the orange shorts and t-shirt that you received on the way in and proceed to the mixed section where you have the chance to relax in front of the TV in a big communal room stretched out on the heated floor or upstairs reading something from the library. There’s also an internet (sorry, World of Warcraft Zone) and a canteen. For a few thousand Won more, you can even doze off and stay the night – some establishments even have communal sleeping rooms, bare, floor-heated rooms with wooden brick-shaped pillows. Basically people spend hours in there.

Spiritual Sweat Lodge. Coming from the native peoples of America, a sweat lodge is a tradition with great spiritual significance and ritual. In Central and South America it’s known as a temazcal and examples of have also been identified in ancient Greece, Ireland, in Celtic  lands and many other cultures. There are very few public sweat lodges of any kind because of the enormous ceremonial significance that they have – and the dangers involved in the extreme environments found within. Participation is usually by invitation and the emphasis will be on respecting the local traditions. Some will be held in silence, some with drums – some will be in darkness, some with a few candles. The ideas behind a sweat lodge have, of course, been adopted by certain New Age groups – a phenomenon criticised by some  indigenous and First Nations, welcomed by others. This uneasy appropriation reached its nadir when a few people died in an inadequately constructed and supervised sweat lodge at a retreat in Arizona in 2009 that occurred after the group had undergone various other extreme New Age practices such as fasting in the desert.

Temple Hot Springs

Hot spring fed. The most basic of hot baths found all over the world wherever geothermally heated water manages to bubble to the surface. The waters generally have a mineral content unique to that area and thus individual baths become renowned as having powers to heal. The best natural hot springs are located in a beautiful, remote area close by a river so that the extreme temperatures can be ameliorated by adding cold water, like the ones at Big Bend in California. For this purpose, stone pools are constructed at different levels down a gradient so that the water flows from bath to bath becoming cooler until it has fully mixed with the river or creek. (photo – and link to blog). This is what’s called a wild hot spring although plenty are now part of some establishment with proper buildings built over tiled pools and you couldn’t really tell if it was heated by man rather than the planet. The weirdest are the temples, where they worship the stuff. In Parvati Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India, the Hindus believe that the hot water results from the hissing of a serpent god, sent to pacify Shiva. The water there comes out hot enough to cook rice.

Scandanavian. The sauna, of course, is found everywhere but it’s the Scandinavian and Russian forms of it that people have in mind, when they think of people sitting inside a very hot wooden box. Traditional forms are heated up with smoke from a fire that is allowed to dissipate before people come in. Any lingering smoke is thought to be helpful, as is the gentle whipping of birch that they like so much in the Russian banyas.  Saunas in Germany and Austria are almost always same-sex, nude affairs – swim wear is usually the norm in other countries where males and females are together.

Hammam. The Muslim’s world form of sauna also focuses on actually getting clean; scrubbing and rinsing out the dust and dirt of a hot day…Water, and the large amounts of wood required to heat it, are valuable commodities in countries like Turkey, Egypt and Morocco – and you’ll find one of these communal bath houses in every neighbourhood., often attached to a bakery which shares the heat for its ovens. Inside a hammam, there are warm and cold rooms to help the body adjust its temperature but most of the action takes place in a central area where the people get clean. The scrubbing is particularly abrasive and you will lose a few layers of skin if you succumb to the attendants’ advances. If you’re tattooed, their unconscious aim may be to remove it. As you would expect, hammams are segregated, most usually men and women use the same facilities at different times of the day.

Go private. Of course, if you’re too shy to be partially or completely naked in front of others – maybe, it’s just a bit too weird to be suddenly doing your bathroom routine in public – do not fear that the benefits of the world in hot water are lost to you. Simply build your own; a little, electrically heated box in the shed or garage; a hot tub with jacuzzi controls for those who prefer an outdoor submersion under the stars; a DIY sweat-lodge  at the end of the garden. The point is that, even if you are alone, you’re doing something humans have always done all over the world…


How to survive the heat and humidity

When it gets really hot...

When it gets really hot...

Heat and humidity – how to survive it when you’re traveling around in a truck in the tropics:

Hanging around countries like Panama, it is immediately obvious that there are basically two economic modes available: the rich and the poor. In the cities, for sure, you see a middle class but, for the region as a whole it’s this basic dualism. And, for me, a middle class, squatter, traveler, it can be tricky identifying with the situation of any one person. Sure, my western-world birth entitles me to the education and opportunities that the rich have – I travel the world like they do and appreciate the same kinds of modern culture. On the other hand, I do not have a home, can’t afford to have kids, have no job-security – back home, I dumpster dive and live in abandoned buildings, my income is based on the minimum wage and I officially fall well below the poverty line. Gets confusing sometimes.

How the other half live...
Condensation on the outside of a bus window.

But hanging around tropical countries like Panama, I can see there’s a new way to describe the people, one that makes it so obvious to which class I belong: There are the Air-con People, who live in an air-con apartment, drive to their air-con office in an air-con car, and there are the Non-Air-con People, every second of their existence open to the hot and humid elements. And I definitely belong to the latter. You probably do too, traveling through in your overland truck, living in a steel and fiber-glass box.

Of course, this is all just a crazy observation born from a brain-addling obsession driven by the relentless heat and humidity. And in the brief respite that is the relative cool of a tropical morning I decided to sniff around the www to see if there were any real solutions out there besides heading back north. Here’s what I found:

  • Buy plenty of fans. For every 5 degrees increase in temperature and10 percentiles of humidity, we bought a new fan until every living mammal on board our bus had at least one personal fan that follows them around wherever they’re sitting or sleeping. Of course this results in a continually shifting web of power cables and a collective hum approaching the more silent of generators but it’s worth it: Fans remain the most valued piece of kit for any overlander in a hot vehicle. You get used to the noise and they seem to continue producing some relief even as your batteries drain to nothing.
  • That’s it, really. Fans are your only hope.

Ok, there are lots of other tricks and tips. Most of them are pretty obvious like parking under a tree, keeping the windows closed, keeping them open, and cooking outside. You can put a wet towel on your head, drink lots of chilled water, take showers every few hours and stuff like that. If you have a ready supply of ice you can fix a couple of computer fans in the lid of your cool-box, blowing out cool air until you have to make another sweaty trip to the ice-vendor.  None of it will really produce the experience you crave. We have become air-con hags; loitering around shopping malls, taking our time in supermarkets and refusing to get out of our richer friends’ cars. There is, of course, the nuclear option of escaping to your nearest mountain village and rediscovering, for a few days at least, the joys of clothing.

Fill box with ice...

Delving deeper into the piles of overlanding blogs, Caribbean Yacht Club websites and Australian Tropical Zone Trucker forums, I discovered there are very few practical solutions out there. With dry heat, things are easier – with evaporative or swamp coolers the principle is to load up the atmosphere with water which reduces the temperature. With the addition of a fan to blow away the moisture-rich air, you can achieve a very comfortable environment. The Ancient Persians are famous for understanding this principle, building great chimneys above their home – a pool of water at the bottom and the gentlest of desert breezes at the top. However, if you live in a more humid environment, the power of evaporation is greatly reduced and you must resort to the refrigeration method of pumping fluid around a closed circuit and forcing it to evaporate and condense over and over. This, of course, consumes a lot of energy – electrical in the case of buildings and mechanical in the case of vehicles. One interesting contraption I discovered was a propane-powered air conditioner – I could only find historical references to it though; is such a machine still sold somewhere? Would it work for an RV-er?

Diesel-powered truck a/c
Consumes 0.7l/hr - electric versions consume 45 A/hr (!)

I more or less understand the physics of it but I’m still slightly amazed that there is no low-power, low capacity version of the air conditioner. Just some small unit that can use the sun’s free energy to release the merest puff of cool, dry air across my desk or bed, that’s all I ask.

Gay Pride 2012 and Sexual Diversity In Panama City

Having a sit down...

Gay Pride Panama 2012

Turns out the hottest transvestite at the Gay Pride 2012 in Panama City sometimes goes around dressed as a giant blue bird during the week. As Dunia  mingled, a stunning blonde whispered to her, ‘I was the one who stole your dog’, referring to an incident a few days ago when five giant blue birds jumped out from behind a bus stop, grabbed Vaga and carried Dunia off down the road. There had been a hidden TV camera and the whole stunt was some kind of Twitter advert.  In return for mildly scaring Vaga and traumatizing Dunia, I only think it’s fair to reveal that Twitter employ hot transvestites to do their dirty work of cheap TV.

Celebrating their community

Definitely a success, then, the eighth, and biggest, Gay Pride to happen in Panama.  Despite the short route (up and down each side of a boulevard) ending bizarrely under the gaze of a massive concrete Einstein’s head; despite not using a nice park because the local authorities were worried about the corrupting effects from the presence of children; and despite the early evening rain thundering through, the event becoming even more intimate as everyone huddled together under a roof; a thousand people of diverse sexuality and unclear gender celebrated their community in the flamboyant fashion that we were hoping for on a Saturday with nothing to do. We had the float with the glamour models, we had an open-top sports car with chunky, shirtless men, we had several people dressed as rainbow -colored angels and we had the out and proud delegations from organizations such as prostitute councils, LGBT clubs and the American Embassy (a clean-cut couple wearing official embassy t-shirts). Yes, we can also reveal just how hard the Republicans might be working for that Hispanic Homosexual vote.

Celebrating the community

Obligatory Eiffel Tower

Tengo Uno Amigo Gay

Marching for sexual diversity

Lesbo mutt hitting on my Indian Pariah mix

The tail end...

Having a sit down...