We have known that our bus would need to be painted since we bought her about a year and a half ago. What we didn't realize was how expensive it would be. If you have been following along with the build, you know that we are a "DIY" type of couple. We have stepped out of our comfort zone and learned to do all kinds of new things.
We decided pretty early on, however, that we would not attempt to paint the bus ourselves. Don't get me wrong - I would love to attempt to paint the bus. I even feel that we would probably do a fairly good job. However, there are a few reasons why we are hiring out for this job. First, it needs quite a bit of body prep work and we would like this done by someone who can really make it look good. Second, our climate here in central Arizona in the middle of summer is probably not a good combination for paint - i.e. scorching temperatures over 110F, giant dust storms known as haboobs, and intermittent powerful monsoon rainstorms. Third, we really don't have an appropriate location to paint the bus. We are renovating this bus in our driveway, mere feet from both our own home and our neighbor's home. We are pushing our luck as it is working on our bus at our house in the middle of a strict HOA. Trying to paint here feels like too large of an overstep.
When we first started asking around about our bus door, many of the body shop folks we talked to were also painters. Bus painters, boat painters, semi-truck painters. One person we briefly spoke to even advertised that they painted amusement park rides! We inquired about "ballpark" figures for getting a large bus like ours done. These were kind of all over the map but we never encountered an estimate that was south of $20,000.
We started asking around in forums and groups we are members of to see where people got their buses painted and if they were happy with the results. We got a few hits and suggestions, but one recommendation stood out.
Last January we decided to make a trip out to Quartzsite to meet some of the folks we have been chatting with on a Facebook group called "Bus Conversions International" during their rally. We made quick friends with this extremely friendly and welcoming lot of folks. When one of the members saw that I was asking for recommendations, he said he knew a guy who had a beautiful bus and had it painted in Mexico by a guy he knows. I had read of people getting their buses painted in Mexico, but it always seemed like a mixed bag as far as results. I asked if I could speak with the person so I could investigate further.
I ended up talking with this gentleman and he revealed that he had worked with this painter for the last 20 years. Not only had he painted his bus but a whole host of cars and trucks over the years. He assured me he was an honest, hardworking man that could be trusted to do an excellent job for a very reasonable price. He gave me the name and number of the painter, and I gave him a call.
When I called the painter, we spoke for a while and he agreed to look at some renderings we had done of what we were looking for in a paint job. We assured him that we are not looking for anything exotic or even fancy, just a couple modest stripes. He reviewed our pictures and gave us an estimate of how much he thought it might cost. We were pretty happy with the price he came back with: $6500.00 to prep and paint the bus.
We made preparations to drop the bus off in Naco, Mexico. We checked all the fluids in the bus: oil, transmission, power steering, coolant. We also checked all the tire pressures, washed the windows, wired up a charger for my phone and a small fan. Michelle's mom and dad agreed to take the kids for the day.
We departed Gilbert, AZ at about 5:30 am, Michelle following the bus in the car. The temperature outside was very mild, in the low 70s. Google Maps told us it would take us about 3.5 hours to make the 209-mile trip. We made arrangements for meeting the painter around 10:30 or 11:00 am to give us a little padding on time.
The trip down went smoothly. The bus got right into a rhythm and cruised down to Mexico with no problems to speak of. Since this was our first drive longer than 35 miles, we paid very close attention to the gauges and what they were telling us. Reading through the forums, I knew that the coolant temperature could not be allowed to reach over 200 degrees F, the oil pressure should read 40+ psi, and the air pressure should remain above 90 psi at all times. Starting out we pushed the bus a little and cruised in the 70 mph range. After following some semi-trucks on the Interstate for a few miles, we discovered that the bus really likes to cruise in the 62-65 mph range.
We were relieved to reach Naco, AZ at around 10:00 am. We passed through the U.S. side of the border with relative ease and waited for a Mexican official to inspect the bus. He asked for my passport, registration, insurance and asked what we were doing with the bus. I told him we had an appointment to get the bus painted in Naco, Mexico. He had us open all the cargo bays, engine bay, and inspected the inside. Sometime later he brought the drug-sniffing dog to go over all the areas of the bus. When that was all finished, he regretted to inform me that he would not be allowing me to pass into Mexico because they no longer accept RVs or buses at the Naco border crossing. He said he had spoken with his superiors and that we would be allowed to cross into Mexico at the Agua Prieta border crossing. We turned the bus around and were stopped by the U.S. officials coming back in. They asked why we had not been allowed to enter. We explained the story, and they said they thought that was "odd".
Michelle had already crossed into Naco in the car and was patiently waiting on the other side when she got the bad news that we would have to drive to Agua Prieta. Fortunately, we had brought walkie talkies with us and that allowed us to communicate pretty easily.
It took Michelle a good 30 minutes to make it back across the border and we were on our way to Agua Prieta. It was close to noon by the time we began the 32-mile trek to the Agua Prieta border crossing. About an hour later we were in line to cross into Mexico.
Again we passed the U.S. inspection with relative ease. A Mexican border agent approached the bus and asked what we were doing there. I explained to him that we had come from Naco and they had called and made arrangements for us to enter Mexico through this border entry. He had me pull into a covered area designed for inspecting larger vehicles. About 15 minutes later, they had us open all the compartments and again looked through everything and brought the drug-sniffing dogs. After another 30 minutes or so, a lady came out to inform us that we would not be allowed to enter Mexico with our bus. WHAT? I asked her why and if we needed to get any special kind of permit or anything. She very simply said that there was nothing we could do, and we would need to take the bus back to the United States. She then had me turn around and opened a special gate for the line to get back into the U.S. This ended up being pretty terrible - our bus is 35ft long and we were within INCHES of hitting many of the barriers. The U.S. officials were shocked that they would not let us in and very patiently guided me and the bus through the many barricades. Of course, I told Michelle over the walkie-talkies what had happened, and she got in line to come back to the United States for the second time that day.
Once across, I pulled over at the nearest place and informed our painter that we were not allowed to enter. He was extremely surprised and said to give him a few minutes. He would call the border officials to inquire about what had happened and if there was anything that could be done. We went and got a cold beverage and waited for his call.
About 20 minutes later he called back and said he spoke with the officials. They told him that because our bus was not outfitted like an RV (it is completely empty inside), they consider it to be a commercial bus. Even though it is privately owned and registered in the US as an RV, they still consider it a commercial bus and commercial buses are not allowed to enter Mexico. He then went on to ask the border official what needed to be done in order for the bus to be allowed to pass. She told him the inside needs to be outfitted like an RV - it needs to have a bed, toilet, some kind of separating walls and maybe some couches. He told us if we do those things and send him pictures, he would take those pictures to her and get a "pre-approval" of sorts to ensure we could come back.
By this point, we were so exhausted, hungry, and stressed from all the run around that we didn't even want to consider coming back. The temperature had climbed to well over 100F outside and with no insulation, the bus was getting REALLY hot inside.
We started our way back home, defeated.
The bus again drove very well, but this time it was dreadfully hot inside. I have a small data logger that tracks the temperature and humidity. It registered above 130 degrees inside the bus for the majority of the trip back home. I am pretty sure my brain fried a little bit in my head.
Around the time we hit Casa Grande, the bus started to slow way down. It would only go about 52 mph even when floored. About 10 minutes later, the speed dropped to a dismal 42 mph, and Michelle got on the walkie-talkies: "WHY ARE YOU GOING SO SLOW?!!" "I AM GOING AS FAST AS I CAN!" "OH NO!". Something was clearly wrong. We looked for a way to get off the freeway and take back roads the rest of the way home. We found the next one and headed off the freeway.
The first thing I noticed when accelerating on the backroads was a severe lack of power. Any mild grate or incline in the road would have a dramatic effect on the speed of the bus. To add insult to injury, we had a police officer behind us from the time we exited the freeway. I was sure I was going to be pulled over (speed limit was 55 mph - we were doing 42 most of the time, and struggling to keep that speed). A few miles later the police officer got sick of being behind the old slow bus and passed us, as did many other cars.
We limped back into our driveway 12 hours after this adventure began; sweaty, hungry (we had not eaten all day), defeated, and exhausted. Mexico or Bust? BUST! "What do you think... " Michelle started as we drove to pick up the kids. "If it is about the bus, I literally don't want to talk about it or think about it until tomorrow". We both agreed to not talk about anything bus related or try to make any decisions after the day we had. We would worry about fixing the bus and figuring out the paint "tomorrow".
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