05
Aug 2012
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 34 Comments

Lost in Transmission

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.


34 Comments

  1. Coreen !

    Hope you’re managing. Best post yet. You need to be featured on Car Talk…

    Comment by Coreen ! on August 5, 2012 at 9:40 pm

  2. Dudes, that is some crazy… The story is too much of a cliffhanger! I can’t wait until the next installment. I wonder what your blood pressure was :0

    Comment by Todd on August 5, 2012 at 9:47 pm

  3. Patti

    Loved the references to your gangsta days. I remember those days well.
    P

    Comment by Patti on August 5, 2012 at 10:38 pm

  4. Brian Macey

    I’m glad the two of you are finally back at home, I look forward to another two and a half years of your amazing storytelling

    Comment by Brian Macey on August 6, 2012 at 12:43 am

  5. guy

    My gawd man I am stressing out just thinking about this! At some point you should write up a little “what I wish I’d done differently”. I’m really curious if you could have avoided some of these issues.

    Good luck and happy travels.

    Comment by guy on August 6, 2012 at 1:42 am

  6. Best post yet! I’m litterally sitting on the edge of my seat! Will Nacho ever be drivable again??? Of course it will…I’m sure Luis knows someone who know someone who can get you parts and stuff…You guys definitely went from the highest high to the lowest low of the trip… You misadventures are unfortunate, but they make for a great story though…Great story telling talent too. We love it.
    Best of luck for the rest of the ride!

    Comment by Marc on August 6, 2012 at 6:27 am

  7. In Africa we slowly shake our heads and say Eish Wena!! Little Nacho seems to be a false economy.

    Comment by Graeme on August 6, 2012 at 6:42 am

  8. Rob aka Carnutdallas

    Brad, sorry to hear of the “situation” and I think that utterly under describes the problem(s) at hand – WOW. I hope you were able to get the swing arm hub assemblies I located? But that may be the least of the concerns…..Being an employer in Texas, I have had first hand experience with Hispanic and Latin technicians who really have no idea what they are doing, BUT have complete and decisive knowledge that they can fix anything. Kind of reminds me of the Cuban’s who keep their 50-60 year old cars running on bailing wire and bubble gum. I have always been concerned having read prior post, that you have had to deal with Central American shops to source and install parts. In the end, you are the best mechanic in the country(s) right now working on your sophisticated little Nacho. Hopefully the damage can be overcome and you can continue on. Once you make it to Europe – next year I figure – you can schedule a week long “Spa Day” for Nacho at one of the many German expert shops that could take Nacho to the next level of Teutonic excellence.

    All the best and safe travels. -Rob

    Comment by Rob aka Carnutdallas on August 6, 2012 at 7:11 am

  9. We got the hubs Rob, thanks again. I’m counting the days until Nacho gets his week-long Teutonic spa day!

    Comment by Brad on August 6, 2012 at 7:35 am

  10. Chad Hummer

    Great post Brad, the writing is terrific. Might also want to carry ATF since it is such a universal lubricant. It can be used in transmissions, power steering, brakes, gearboxes, and even engines if needed. ;)

    Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Chad Hummer on August 6, 2012 at 8:28 am

  11. Good advice Chad, thanks!

    Comment by Brad on August 6, 2012 at 8:59 am

  12. Riley Rice

    On the bright side, Mars’ Curiosity landed safely. Brad, is it a coincidence that they only send such probes to places where there are no locals to “fix” the NASA machines? Could you have had better luck on Mars, maybe?

    Comment by Riley Rice on August 6, 2012 at 1:53 pm

  13. Cruz

    Wow, my wife just read your post and panicked; she wanted to put my “Guapo” (87 Vanagon) up for sale! I am getting my “Guapo” ready for our USA tour, much like your trip just not out of US yet. Sorry for your misfortune but keep up the good spirits, remember things get better and your book will be a best seller!

    The wife talking…Anyone want to buy an 87 Vanagon????

    Comment by Cruz on August 7, 2012 at 12:12 am

  14. Grammie

    Let’s make a pinkie pledge, no more Hispanic mechanics – unless they speak German.
    Love to you both.
    Grammie

    Comment by Grammie on August 7, 2012 at 1:27 am

  15. Matt

    that is some sick shizzle, Sir! Netxt time, bring gun :-)

    Comment by Matt on August 7, 2012 at 2:41 am

  16. hey both. Having suffered the same transmission failure, we feel your pain. Didn’t know the full horror of the story til now though. What a nutcase that guy was! Reading this induced some horrible flashbacks. We will never stop being paranoid about our transmission now. Hope Nacho is recovering well. xx

    Comment by Paula and Jeremy on August 7, 2012 at 12:49 pm

  17. kelly

    You need to change your site’s name to FixNachoFix

    Comment by kelly on August 7, 2012 at 1:36 pm

  18. Boris

    Wow. I’m still shivering after reading that.

    Comment by Boris on August 8, 2012 at 7:38 am

  19. jed

    I love reading your posts because it makes my few car problems seem so small and silly. good luck and keep smiling, remember its not a vacation its an adventure. Also next time you drive around the world take a toyota. jed

    Comment by jed on August 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm

  20. guy

    Now I really empathize – I thrashed Betsy’s steering in Baja. Just crawled into Ensenada to start my own search for parts & mechanics.

    I wish us both luck.

    Comment by guy on August 16, 2012 at 2:38 pm

  21. I’m excited to read the next post. I’ll be making a list of spare bolts/nuts for my vehicle (just in case).

    Thanks.

    Comment by Brandon on August 18, 2012 at 1:12 pm

  22. David

    Outstanding article and the best yet with great writing – like so many others, I am waiting for the outcome. It was some years ago, I can’t quite remember how many but I decided to set out in the world. In that time, like you, I have adopted the mechanical religion of belief in ones self over others.
    Every single time I let someone do something that really mattered, they did it wrong. Didn’t have the right socket for those big wheel nuts on a full floating axle – sure you thought the chisel and hammer was good enough (the nuts backed off and the bearings piled up locking up 6000#’s at 65.
    Sure the modern wheel cylinder can replace the older on (except for the position of the piston cups); lost those brakes with a 17,000# bus on a 14% grade.
    No, I learned to work on mine. Ultimately, I learned to do more than mechanical – I did the paint, upholstery, fabrication, welding – everything.
    Currently building my new long distance vehicle… and no one gets to work on her except me. Followed the same rules for the past three cruising boats as well.
    Cheers to you and your journey!

    Comment by David on August 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm

  23. jed

    We will be in Colombia in about two weeks if you still need some parts from the big city of panama. hope all is well with nacho before then. jed

    Comment by jed on August 21, 2012 at 8:59 am

  24. Haven’t heard (read, actually) from you guys in 17 days… Are you still out there? Or “back at home” (see comment from Brian M.). Is this the end of the ride for you? Or Nacho? Or just a FixNachoFix break?? You letting us hanging… Take care.

    Comment by Marc on August 22, 2012 at 9:47 am

  25. @Marc: Worry not. We took a long “Fix Nacho Fix” hiatus, but we’re back on the road. I just keep falling behind on keeping the blog updated! New update coming in a couple of minutes…

    Comment by Brad on August 22, 2012 at 7:06 pm

  26. [...] Ferry Info Recent Posts Lost in TransmissionSolace in the SnowstormThe Road to El Cocuy, Part 2: The Truck Driver’s Secret Road var widget [...]

    Pingback by Drive Nacho Drive » The Fourth Option on August 22, 2012 at 7:35 pm

  27. It was 1975 I was a 6 year young and my father imported a VW “Kleinbus” to Chile, our new home. And not a standard one, but the special edition with an air cooled boxer motor and two carburetors (twice as complicated). The “Kleinbus” should be our daily transport and vacation-adventure vehicle, but what I remember most is my father laying under the vehicle fixing something: when it was not the brakes it was the carburetors, or the timing belt, or the transmission like in your case. At some point is was not funny anymore; and listening to him complaining about the local mechanics, having to do all himself and the exorbitant prices of imported spare parts made it not better. The VW continued his life as a cripple standing for years in the barn. My father sold his loved VW a few months ago, after 37 years, with a tear in his eye. This car must have something addictive.

    My conclusion is that the VW feels good in Germany, where there are German mechanics and spares in each town. Not in Deep South America with self appointed bush mechanics putting imperial screws on millimeter nuts. If you want to be happy going off the beaten path in South America bring something like a Toyota, Nissan or anything simple and widely used like pickups. Otherwise stay on the main streets and cities.

    Wish you luck and I’ll be happy to see you here in Chile.

    Comment by Anton on August 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm

  28. Chris Knight

    Brad and Sheena,

    You don’t know me but we ( we = Emily and Chris Knight, future overlanders), have been following your incredible trip as well as your slow descent into vehicular hell.

    I’ve never suggested this to anyone before, but have you considered adding a “DONATE” button to your homepage? I don’t even know you and I feel like throwing you guys a few bucks just to get your butts back on the road.

    And when I say a ‘few’ bucks, I literally mean a few…as in five, or ten, depending on how compassionate your next post makes me feel. No pressure.

    Chris (and Emily)

    Comment by Chris Knight on September 4, 2012 at 4:28 pm

  29. Chris, we do have one and it lives here:

    http://www.drivenachodrive.com/donate/

    It used to say “donate” or something like that, but people kept making a big stink about it so I changed the wording. Some people…

    And thanks! We could use the money after 3 months averaging $5k per month. In a row! Makes me sick thinking about it…

    Comment by Brad on September 4, 2012 at 8:36 pm

  30. [...] We later learned that Nacho was in fact not fine after all. What we were examining that afternoon was Nacho’s transmission grenade’ing itself. You can read more about that fun-filled adventure on his blog here. [...]

    Pingback by Villa De Leyva | Home on the Highway on September 25, 2012 at 5:46 pm

  31. [...] them, and cleaned up the brake drums.  To my dismay, but not disbelief, I found that the deranged mechanic of Susacón had sabotaged my driver’s side rear brake while he was in the process of sabotaging my [...]

    Pingback by Drive Nacho Drive » Nachoshank Redemption on September 27, 2012 at 12:04 pm

  32. Esmi

    Excellent adventure, very well told. I am enjoying following it here and at ExPo.

    Oh, and FWIW, there’s no manly “wetting your pants just a little bit.” It’s kind of an all or nothing thing.

    Thanks for sharing your stories I hope you get moving again soon!

    Comment by Esmi on October 4, 2012 at 7:19 pm

  33. [...] Contraband Smuggler Man- No More DreamingAugust 2012- The Great White North- The Fourth Option- Lost in TransmissionJuly 2012- Solace in the Snowstorm- The Road to El Cocuy, Part 2: The Truck Driver's Secret Road- [...]

    Pingback by Drive Nacho Drive » The End of the Road on March 10, 2013 at 6:08 pm

  34. [...] Contraband Smuggler Man- No More DreamingAugust 2012- The Great White North- The Fourth Option- Lost in TransmissionJuly 2012- Solace in the Snowstorm- The Road to El Cocuy, Part 2: The Truck Driver's Secret Road- [...]

    Pingback by Drive Nacho Drive » Born Again Nacho on June 29, 2013 at 7:16 am

Leave A Comment!