Monday morning finally came, I awoke at 5am before sunrise, like a kid on Christmas morning. It had rained the night before and the sky over El Sauzal, Mexico was clear, and I soaked up an incredible sunrise. The hostel where I stay at in Baja, Hostel El Sauzal, has an amazing outdoor shower, where every morning, when the sun gets just warm enough, I stand and look out at the ocean from under a fountain of steaming water. Showers are followed by breakfast, where Maria, the hostel’s owner and one of the nicest people I know, has a hot breakfast of homemade tortillas, eggs, potatoes, and coffee waiting for me. Does life get any better than this?
Showered, and with full bellies we began the hour long trek back to Los Panchos in Tijuana. As we arrived, they were putting the last touches on the Van, polishing and waxing. It looked great, nothing like the Van I dropped off only 3 weeks before. That Los Panchos got the job done on time and on budget was just icing on the cake.
“Ramiro, can you have someone re-key my sliding door lock? It’s never worked and I’d like it to work with my ignition key,” I said. Every time I would ask anything of Ramiro, the answer would always be the same. He’d look up at me (he’s stands at around 5ft tall), eyes soft, and calmly answer “No problem”. No request was too small or too big. It was so easy to get the shop to do whatever work I requested, and at such reasonable prices that I started thinking up new jobs for them to do. And before departing Ramiro, I agreed that I would come back in one week, and he’d fix my lock, re-do my DIY headliner to match the rest of the interior, and address anything that came up with the paint job.
I turned the key, pulled out of Los Panchos with face glowing with an ear to ear grin and made for the border, only a short mile’s drive away. My elation was short lived however, as the line for the border came into view. That weekend had been the Baja 1000, and on Monday the throngs of people and their rigs fresh from the race were returning to the U.S.. 4 hours we waited in that line. Clutch in, first gear, slowly release clutch, crawl a foot or two, back on clutch, neutral, and repeat every 15-20 seconds while being offered a nonstop barrage of Hammocks, Mexican Blankets, Ceramic Jesus on a large wooden cross, oversized Teddy Bears, and Churros. Ok I may have grabbed some Churros…
The border behind me, I arrived as the sun was setting in San Diego where I had been storing my Bumpers, Awning, and light bar. In the darkness, I managed to get the bumpers and swing aways reinstalled, and noticed the rear hatch wasn't aligned properly and therefore I couldn't lock my passenger side swing away. It was a minor issue, and I figured I’d have Los Panchos address it the next week on my return trip. I threw everything else in the van to be reinstalled in the coming days.
Exhausted, I still had an hour’s drive home. It being dark, I switched on my headlights and voila, the heavens were ablaze with several thousand lumens of LED headlight goodness. It was then I realized my headlights had been installed upside down! Bewildered by this, I walked around the van. Wait, my tail lights were upside down and backwards too! And hey, my hookup boxes were all mixed up! And… are my sliding windows are opening the opposite way from before? I stood there and looked at everything for a moment, slightly perturbed. I wondered aloud to myself how in the hell you could do that? How could you manage to reinstall everything upside down and backwards? Even if it was an accident, wouldn't the odds favor you reinstalling at least one thing correctly? Too tired to deal with the lighting issues, I switched on my Hella fog lights for illumination and I drove the van home, upsides down lights and all.
The next morning I began the task of reassembling the van, I didn't want to rush anything so as not to risk damaging my new paint. I reversed all the lights, installed a new set of South African Mudflap's from GoWesty, reinstalled the Light Bar and brackets from Vanagonlife.com and then went to my friend’s Vinyl shop to pickup the decals I had them make for me.
I had plenty of downtime without my Van, so I gave the decals a lot of thought. I wanted a simple look, that gave the Van character, filled in one of the big blank spaces on it (the back of the high top), but didn't look over the top and gaudy. I chose a large world map decal for the back of the high top which would represent our ambitions of world travel, and some a simple silhouette of mountains for the side panel. The front doors, where you would normally find a 4WD decal on a Syncro, I added a custom compass decal. Finally, I had two stock Westfalia decals made, for the top front and top back. All were done in a off-white, cream color, so as not to contrast too much with the Blue paint.
Decals in hand, it was time to apply them. The smaller ones went on without much trouble, but the large world map on the back was a royal pain. With any vinyl decal, it’s very easy to crinkle or tear it when applying. This is magnified several times for a large decal. After nearly an hour of careful application, the decal was applied successfully and I stood back to admire my work.
That day I received in the mail a notice from the DMV that the custom license plates that I ordered in August had arrived. I documented my experience on my iPhone while I waited…
“I walked up to the counter, license plate and registration in hand. I had been here the week before to try to figure out why the license plates I ordered 12 weeks ago hadn't yet arrived. 12 weeks for a couple license plates!?! Last week the counter woman had reached into a box of license plates to check and see if mine were there. The box was just within arms reach. I figured it would be a quick and easy pickup this week and I wouldn't have to take a number and sit with the rest of the herd, looking blank faced at their phones, feet, or me. As I approached the counter, I was asked by the woman working there "what is the purpose of your visit?". "I'm here to pick up my custom plates, here's my old plates and registration" in one swift motion she grabbed my papers from my hands and moved them towards her automatic stapling machine "But miss, last week the lady checked right th...." Thwomp , the stapler pounded, and she handed me back the pile of documents saying only "B55" before motioning for the next person in line. I paused and stared deep into her eyes, there had to be something there, lost love? She looked like a teacher out of that old TV show the Wonder Years. Thick, coke bottle glasses, dark piercing, yet soulless eyes. How many wrong turns would lead you to working the front desk at the DMV? What is the interview process like? I thought to the countless interviews I had conducted. I was always looking for the best. But you wouldn't want the best for the DMV front desk position. You would want someone lifeless, who could be belittled and spit on by angry hordes day after day. They'd have to be like her. How sad. And why were they always women?”
New plates in hand, I returned home and threw them on. VAGOBND it was.
Vagobond: One without clear means of income who is both honest and moving from place to place.
It felt really good when I installed the rear plate. The new name perfectly summed up what I wanted to do with the van when I was finally finished with it. Moving around from one exotic land to another, free of time constraints, free to take in the subtleties of each locale I set out to explore.
The front plate I riveted to the front bumper, a trick I picked up from other Overlander’s. One tactic used by corrupt officials in Latin America is to take off your license plate and then issue you a ticket for not having one. Also in some parts, American license plates are collected by thieving locals. Both would be foiled by my riveted license plate, or so I hope.
The following day, I received my Vanagonlife VOW window in the mail. This window replaces the rear drivers side window, which in a Westfalia is mostly covered by cabinetry. The outside of this metal window is for mounting accessories such as (in my case) MaxTrax traction pads and a shovel for self recovery from sandy or muddy terrain. The inside has a MOLLE grid pattern for mounting bags, pouches, and other accessories. (MOLLE (pronounced /ˈmɒl.liː/, as in the female name) is an acronym for Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment. It is used to define the current generation of load-bearing equipment and backpacks utilized by a number of NATO armed forces, especially the British Army and the United States Army.)
On the MOLLE, I mounted, a first aid kit, and several other carry bags, utilizing the space that was formerly a sliver of window for a bit of extra storage. As the VOW arrived after my paint job was finished, I would need to take it back down to Mexico to have it installed by Los Panchos.
I spent the rest of the week painstakingly reinstalling everything. The Vagobond was garnering a lot of attention now with her new paint job. And before showing her to anyone, I wanted her to look her best. The opportunity came when my friends Neil, Kristi, and Ton arranged a impromptu meet up in Huntington Beach. We were due for a big storm later that day, and we rushed to grab lunch and hang out for a bit before the rain started. Despite our best efforts as we pulled into the parking lot at the beach, the rain started. It quickly intensified to typhoon strength, and Neil and I hurried to retract his awning before it was twisted off his van, Walt, by the wind. We clambered inside Walt with our food, and ate while waiting for the deluge to pass. Shortly Ton arrived, and with him a break in the weather. We emerged from Walt and I walked around The Vagobond and showed her off proudly. As I was doing so, the clouds parted above us and the most incredible rainbow I've ever seen appeared directly over our vans. It was incredible, and I took it as a omen of great things to come.
A few days later, I repeated the drive to Los Panchos once more. The adrenaline and slight nervousness of the first trips now faded and replaced instead by a feeling of familiarity. I had phoned Ramiro several days prior and told him I’d be coming, he was waiting for me when I pulled in. We briefly discussed the work that I wanted done for the day.
The cost for this days work? $150 for the upholstery and headliner work, $17 to rekey my door and make me a spare key (matching the lock to my other doors so I could use my ignition key for the slider lock), and $40 to remove the rear window and install the VOW. After we agreed on everything, his team set off to the various local shops to gather what they needed. One guy off to the place across the street that supplied the carpeting we would use for the headliner and rear area, Ramiro off to his locksmith buddy, and another guy off to fetch the window installer. I couldn't believe that for $200, I had a whole team of guys at my disposal for the better part of a day.
I jumped in to help the upholstery guy remove my headliner, so as not to damage the wiring underneath that I had installed over the summer for my Osram reading light and dome light that I had built into it. I gave him a new dome light to install, a bigger, brighter LED. While he worked, I set about rewiring everything for the new dome light, and took the opportunity to run the wires for the light bar from the hightop down under the headliner and down the A pillar to the fuse box.
A short time later, a teenager walked up to the shop, complete with a red hooded sweatshirt and iPhone earbuds blaring Daddy Yankee so loud I could hear it. He and Ramiro spoke for a minute and it soon became clear that he was the window installer. “Shouldn't he be in school or something?” I thought to myself. But this kid had a quiet confidence to him, unbefitting for someone his age. He was the man when it came to Auto Windows, I could see it in his eyes.
Sure enough, he made short work of my window removal, effortlessly removing it, while I watched in agony. Ramiro appeared with a barrel and they placed the VOW on top, removed the window seal from the old window (just installed a week ago and still new) and reinstalled the undamaged seal onto the VOW. Next they took the took the VOW, lubed up the window frame, and with a section of rope carefully popped it into place. The kid was a window maestro, but even more impressive to me was that neither earbud ever became dislodged.
My paint saga now complete, I made my way once more back down to Ensenada, to enjoy more tacos, and Mexican hospitality. So now the question, should you get your car painted in Mexico, or not? The answer is not so simple, and whether or not it’s the right choice for you will depend on how many of the Pro’s I list below outweigh the Con’s. I’ll list as many as I can think of and let you decide.
Other Considerations (neither pros or cons)
Final Thoughts: Overall I am very pleased with the work that Los Panchos did for me. The experience from start to finish was mostly a positive one. I saved myself many thousands of dollars versus having the work done at home, and I got to spend some time getting to know a different side of a country that I love (Mexico). I plan to use Los Panchos in the future for any of my paint needs, and would recommend others give them serious consideration.