As soon as I knew what it was to want, I desired nothing more than to be the commander of an intergalactic space shuttle. Later on I decided that I would make a better commercial fishing boat captain. For a short time in 5th grade, my best friend Nick and I decided that we wanted to be nefarious gang members. We even went so far as to form our own gang called The Bloody Devils; we designed a logo that we intended to get tatted on our arms (a dagger with dripping blood), and declared the Southwestern corner of the Heritage Middle School playground as “our turf”. My mom, ever the supporter, bought me a red bandana so there would be no confusion as to the level of my bad-assedness.
During recess we would defend our turf by staging shirtless wrestling matches against our rival gang members, who weren’t even prepared enough to have a gang name, a logo, or a turf on which to stage their own turf wars. However, after a few weeks of prepubescent territorial squabbling, our aspirations shifted to the NBA and our turf fell into the hands of Eric Seeley and his nameless, logoless cronies. These last few weeks I’ve been wishing to be Barbara Walters, or some other tough-talking interviewer. I wake up in the middle of the night waiting with anticipation for the Colombian mechanic to answer my question; why did you do it? I tried to get away from these mechanics, but they wouldn’t let me go. Why didn’t you just leave me alone? Answer the question! WHY DID YOU DO IT?!
We had left El Cocuy feeling that we had just experienced the greatest highlight of our trip thus far. What we hadn’t realized, however, was that we were driving in a ticking time bomb.
We followed James and Lauren out of town, intending to reach Villa de Leyva by evening . When we reached the town of Guacamayas I thought I smelled a coolant leak, so when James stopped his truck to take a picture, I ran out and smelled his engine. As I leaned over to stick my head in their wheel well, my eyes were drawn to the stream of oil gushing out of Nacho’s belly. I flashed back to my days as a gang member, and remembered that liquid gushing out of the belly could only mean one thing. Nacho’s nizzle had been shizzled.
Oh no – shizzled! My brain went into analytical mode to try to figure out what was happening, but my body took over and bolted like a newly dead chicken – a flurry of uncoordinated arms and legs. While I flailed around my brain tried to make sense of my train of thought: Nacho bleeding! Dark oil between engine and transmission. No oil trail – must have started when I stopped. When I stopped I turned engine off. Must restart engine!
Sure enough, restarting the engine caused the oil to slow down, and revving it to 3,000 RPM caused it to stop leaking. I wasn’t about to be stuck in the middle of the remote Colombian mountains – 9 hours from a big city – with a major mechanical issue. I would just have to keep the engine speed above 3,000 RPM until we could get to our next stop, where I could set up shop for a while to fix whatever was wrong.
Forty five minutes passed and everything seemed to be going okay. On occasion I would stop and run out to see if the leak had worsened, but it seemed to be holding. As we began descending into Chicamocha canyon, the transmission made a funny sound. Actually, there was nothing funny about it. The transmission made a sound scary enough to make a grown man wet his pants, but only just a little bit. I admitted defeat and pulled under a shade tree next to a grove of prickly pear cactus. A small stream of transmission fluid coated the dry grass while I sat staring out of the windshield. Sheena knew better than to ask what I was going to do. No, by now she knows that these moments of silence are my time to come to terms with the fact that I have no idea what to do.
By now it was clear that the transmission, and not the engine, was bleeding out. A small feat of German engineering called the “oil slinger” was keeping the oil from pouring out of what was probably a failed transmission oil seal – but it only worked above 3,000 RPM. What had caused the seal to fail was anyone’s guess. I decided to use our reserve of gear oil to refill the transmission and try to get to Villa de Leyva. We had long since, and perhaps foolishly, waved James and Lauren on, promising to meet up with them at the campground.
After the transmission refill – a procedure that takes close to an hour on the Vanagon – we finished the descent into the canyon, crossed the river, and then started the switchback ascent up the other side. By the time we reached the village at the top of the climb I was feeling more confident that we could make it. We were done with the toughest part and had reached a more frequently trafficked road.
It was in between the towns of Soatá and Susacón, while I sat there with a smug look on my face thinking I was so damn smart, that Nacho lost all power, came to a stop, voided his bowels right there in the middle of the dirt road, and started rolling backwards. My smug look evaporated and I stared out of the windshield. Sheena knew better than to ask what I was going to do. I cycled through all of the gears, but forward motion was not to be. Nacho had failed an epic fail.
After cursing our luck, we put our friendly hitchhiker faces on and tricked a nice Colombian man into helping us out. We roped up to his truck and settled in for the short three mile haul to Susacón. The alternative was our winchless self-recovery system, which somehow felt far under qualified for the job. Instead we just sat there, Sheena restraining from asking me the obvious question.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Latin-American car mechanics since starting this trip, it’s that 99% of them don’t have the faintest clue how to work on cars. They take things apart really fast until they feel like they’ve sufficiently destroyed whatever it is they were working on, and then they start putting things back together incorrectly, while leaving some things out and then tightening the bolts as much as their fingers or pliers will allow. I recently made a decree not to let anyone who isn’t me touch our innocent little Nacho ever again. A transmission failure, while a much bigger job than anything else that’s gone wrong, would be no different. I figured I would get the transmission out so I could see what was wrong, and to do so I would just need to borrow a jack. I asked the man to pull us near to the town’s mechanic shop so I could ask about renting a jack. He happily obliged, and we soon found ourselves parked on the street in front of a grungy dirt-floored hole full of rusty junk. We left Nacho parked on the street and set off to find a place to stay for the night.
In the morning I walked to the mechanic’s shop to ask if I could rent his jack to remove our transmission. One might try to defend the mechanic for his idiocy by suggesting that something was lost in translation, but no. The discussion went exactly as follows, except in Spanish. I know, because I’ve dreamt it over and over in my Barbara Walters dream:
“Hi, our transmission has failed and I’ll be needing to do some work on it. I prefer to work on my own car, but I don’t have a jack. Would it be possible for me to borrow your jack later so that I can work on my transmission? I’d be willing to pay you.”
“Yes, no problem. I have a jack that you can use. Just come and find me when you need it; I’ll be in my house.”
With that out of the way, I went off to the internet café to seek advice on The Samba and from my brother, who is a master technician for BMW. After almost two hours, due to a slow internet connection, I was back on my feet headed toward Nacho. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight I saw.
There, right in the middle of the street, the mechanic and the hotel owner from across the road were sprawled out under Nacho. All around them were mounds of nuts, bolts, washers, spacers, and unidentifiable doo dads. For some inexplicable reason the mechanic had taken apart my driver’s side rear hub, and my drum brake was hanging from my now bent hydraulic brake line. To remove the hub housing from the swingarm, he removed all of the bolts using vice grips. These bolts are tightened to over 100ft-lbs; needless to say he destroyed the bolts.
He wanted to remove my shift linkage from the transmission, but rather than removing the single nut that connects it, he first attempted to take apart the universal joint at the opposite end of the van. Unable to do so, he left the joint partially destroyed and instead disconnected the splined shift linkage interface – which you’re NOT supposed to touch!
Having successfully obliterated my shift linkage, he set to work on getting the actual transmission out. He started by undoing all of my CV bolts with a pair of vice grips, destroying the bolts in the process.
After incorrectly disconnecting the transmission from the frame, he let the whole engine/transmission assembly fall some unknown distance to his jack, which cause the air filter box to rip clean off of the engine compartment wall. He knew so little about what he was doing that, by the time I found him, he had already started trying to pull the drive flanges out of the side of the transmission while it was hanging there.
“SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSTOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOP!!!!! What the hell are you DOING!?
It was all I could think to say. For several seconds I reprimanded him, but since the transmission was lying on his chest he didn’t make much of an effort to move.
“I need to replace the clutch.”
“No, you need to get the hell out from under there!”
In a flurry of vice grips and oily hands the two of them, ignoring me, separated the transmission from the engine, unbolted the clutch pressure plate, and removed the clutch.
“Give me the new clutch,” he said, holding out his grease-covered grubby little hands. He actually expected that I would give him my brand new clutch so he could destroy it by covering it in grease and gear oil. Furthermore, I actually think he planned to install it and put it all back together so I could drive along on my merry way. Clearly this guy was a deranged maniac. I tried to think what I would have done if I were a gang member, but somehow taking off my shirt and wrestling him didn’t seem appropriate.
At long last, the deranged maniac got out from under Nacho, whereupon I continued to yell profanities and disbelieving questions at him. “What were you thinking? What didn’t you understand about my simple instructions? Did you know I used to be a nefarious gang member!?”
After the moron finished putting our hub back together, I grabbed our transmission and put it in the back of the van. I crawled under Nacho and placed all of the nuts and bolts in a plastic box and set them inside for later, and then I used several ratchet straps to hold the axles and the engine up, which he had left hanging without any support. Once Nacho was sufficiently buttoned up, I went back to our temporary home – Hospedaje La Violeta – and told our host, Luis, about what had happened.
As evening fell, Luis and I snuck over to Nacho by cover of dusk and hitched a tow strap to the front bumper. Without being detected by the deranged mechanic we slipped away to the relative safety of his gated farm. When we reached the farm, several of his farm hands joined in pushing Nacho through the wooden gate leading to our small cabin on the edge of a eucalyptus grove. With Nacho out of harm’s way, Sheena and I slipped into our cabin where, for night after night, I would dream that I was Barbara Walters chasing the elusive truth within the deranged mind of the mechanic of Susacón.