In my fourth year of engineering school I decided to do an independent study project. This meant I would choose a problem, and then engineer a solution to it while reporting my progress to my academic advisor. Initially I felt inclined to improve the aerodynamics of a rotating bicycle wheel; a problem that keeps us all awake at night, I’m sure. At the last minute, my advisor mentioned that an off-grid ranch near Flagstaff wanted to switch their power supply from a diesel generator to a hybrid of solar and wind power. They just needed a sucker to design the system for them. Wait a minute, I was a sucker, I thought. This would be perfect for me! I chose the ranch project and walked out of my advisor’s office with a stack of books.
I will wave my arm and say that many things happened, and at the end of the semester I had overengineered the process in a big way. In an effort to optimize everything, I had written a full library of computer code to do everything from product performance simulation, to weather prediction and statistical analysis. My advisor told me I should commercialize what I had done.
I will wave my arm again and say that many things happened and my social life suffered. A few years and several programming languages later, I had started a business and commercialized my software. A short while later my company was acquired, I quit my day job, and overnight I went from being a designer of medical products to being a renewable energy software engineer. A drastically simplified and beautified version of my software can be used here.
So what’s the point, and why am I not talking about our trip? Because I want to demonstrate that sometimes things happen in our lives that seem trivial, but they can alter our path in unexpected ways. This is what happened the day Nacho’s transmission went belly up three miles from the small Colombian mountain village of Susacón.
By our original plan we should have been sitting around a campfire with our friends in Villa de Leiva, laughing at things so funny that expensive cognac would be shooting from our noses while watching a beautiful sunset and looking so chic in our turtleneck sweaters. Instead we rescued Nacho from the grasp of a demented maniac, retreated to the safety of a gated farm, and spent the first night teetering on the ragged edge of a nervous breakdown. In Guatemala we were stranded for a week and it was devastating. A couple of fellow Volkswagen travelers suffered a transmission failure in Honduras and it took nearly 70 days to get back on the road. By all estimations we were in for a hellish time.
For starters, there are a few things to know about Colombia, Vanagons, and why breaking down in the latter while visiting the former is a bad thing. The first thing to know is that there are more unicorns in Colombia than Vanagons. In a place where Vanagon sightings make tabloid news, finding parts for our transmission would be virtually impossible. Next, the Colombian government recently passed a law prohibiting the importation of used car parts. New parts can be imported, but they are taxed as high as 50% of their retail value. yes, even if you’re leaving the country with said parts in a matter of days. The last thing to know is that new Vanagon transmissions don’t exist. They haven’t been produced in many, many moons, and so the only way forward is to buy rebuilt ones. When I say “rebuilt”, you should hear “used”.
After a couple of evenings we had identified three options for getting ourselves out of this mess.
Option #1: Bring our failed transmission to an inept local mechanic to be rebuilt, locally, and ineptly
When we got back to the farm and got settled in, I took a closer look at our transmission to see what had happened. The reason we stopped moving forward was immediately apparent. The input shaft, which connects the engine to the transmission, connects to the transmission’s gears by a grooved metal sleeve, held in place by a circlip and a threaded rod. Somehow, the circlip had come off, the threaded rod backed out, and the sleeve slipped out of the way. With nothing holding the input shaft in line, it had gone all willy nilly. This willy nillyness caused the input shaft to melt the main transmission oil seal and destroy the oil slinger. At this point, Nacho’s mojo leaked out and he voided his bowels, as you may recall.
After removing the bell housing from the transmission, I noticed that the ring and pinion gears were missing a couple of teeth, and the ones that remained intact were so pitted and cracked that it made a meth addict seem like a Colgate poster girl. To go the local rebuild route, they would have to import a new ring and pinion, input shaft, oil slinger, seal, and whatever else might have been wrong inside of the gear cluster. By my estimation, this would take a month and would cost at least as much as a new transmission stateside. Given the ineptness of the local mechanics, they would probably make all new parts out of beer cans and solder, and our transmission would fail again within a few hundred miles.
Option #2: Buy a rebuilt transmission in the USA, ship it to Colombia on a cargo plane
You will recall that ordering a rebuilt transmission and having it sent to Colombia is illegal. No problem, those are the rules, and rules are made to be bent. We would just buy the transmission from a rebuilder who could be coerced into lying on our receipt to say it was new. What are the chances a customs agent would be able to tell the difference? We found that Aeromexico had cargo planes going from LAX to Bogota, and could carry our transmission for the low cost of $330 plus import taxes. We would just have to figure out how to get it to LAX, and bingo bango.
Almost bingo bango. Turns out you can’t just go into the cargo port and pay your import taxes. That would be too easy. Instead you have to hire a professional customs broker to do the process for you. After calling around, I found that customs brokers only deal with freight forwarding companies, and not individuals such as myself. I considered incorporating my own Colombian customs brokerage for the occasion, but it seemed like a wildly inefficient idea.
Option #3: Buy a rebuilt transmission from the USA and put it on a drug lord’s motor boat
I’m being a little hyperbolic here, but the third option is a little on the shady side. We were told about a freight forwarder in Miami that could export used car parts to Colombia. I don’t know how, and I didn’t ask. All I would have to do is buy a rebuilt transmission and have it trucked to this company in Miami. They would then put it on a ship, which would take it to Colombia’s North coast. At this point it would go through customs, and would be placed on another truck that would take it to Bogota, where I would pick it up and bring it to Susacón on a bus. By my estimation this would take about a month, and would cost somewhere around $1,000 in shipping all said and done.
For a week Sheena and I weighed our options, I made phone calls to Bogota and the USA, spoke to customs brokers, posed questions on internet forums, begrudgingly spoke to Latin-American car mechanics, and generally tried to figure out what the heck to do. The more I found out, the less I liked our options. I just wanted it to be easy, but that was option #4, and so far we hadn’t identified that option. As the days passed, we became more and more comfortable at the farm.
Our accommodations were in a private cabin on the outskirts of the village, at the edge of a eucalyptus grove. Out our front door, beyond the eucalyptus trees were several varieties of fruit trees, heavy with fresh fruit free for the picking. Sheena spent much of her free time picking figs and figuring out different ways of making dessert out of them. Our patio overlooked a meadow of tall green grass with weeping willow trees, grazing dairy cows, and little frolicking baby cows. On our second day a baby cow was born a stone’s throw from out patio. For our little cabin we paid $25 per night.
Each day, our hosts Hernando and Constanza would show up at our door bearing housewarming gifts. Some days they would have a pitcher of fresh squeezed juice from one of their fruit trees, or a platter of fresh fruit. One day Hernando dropped off a bag of fresh coffee that he had just roasted using beans from a neighboring farm. Constanza dropped off a bowl of freshly ground beef from one of their cows so that we could make barbequed hamburgers on the wood fired grill. They brought over a bowl of dessert figs that Constanza made, lighting a fig fire inside of Sheena that would prove impossible to extinguish.
Once we discovered the bounty available from the surrounding farms, we began to subsist entirely on things that came from within the village. We bought peaches from the farm up the hill, raw coffee beans from the farm down the canyon, which I would roast in a pan, fresh honey from another farmer, and fruits and vegetables from the Monday market. After discovering that Hernando and Constanza had fresh beef from their cows, we kept ourselves in good supply of filet mignon for the grill. For around $30 per week we stayed stocked up on fresh local food and ate like kings. Well, a king and a queen.
Our evenings were spent barbequing, watching fireflies in our meadow, and curling up to watch movies. We woke each morning to sunlight filling our cabin through the curtains, followed by a tired stumble through the meadow to fill up our morning milk pitcher directly from the cow’s udder. Somehow, the importance of choosing an option for how to fix our transmission seemed a distant second to living the good life.
Each morning Sheena and I donned our running shoes and stole away into the hills surrounding Susacón. We ran out the back of the farm, up the cobbled track that leads past the pigs, under the giant willows, and past the monument to the revolutionaries who marched this way on their way to the Battle of Boyacá. We ran up a steep hill until we met the dirt road that wound its way through the forested hillsides toward Chicamocha canyon. We ran under cover of eucalyptus and willow trees, passed by raspberry bushes, agave, and prickly pear cactus. Each day we saw the same old woman with her bowler cap and woolen shawl, who asked us how we were dong, told us how wonderful the day was, and asked how we were liking Susacón. After cresting the hill, we descended into a meadow where the track wound past two large weeping willows before disappearing around a bend; a Monet painting in real life.
One morning, Hernando offered to bring us hiking in the mountains above Chicamocha canyon. To get there we drove the road where we took our morning runs, but this time continued until we reached the edge of the canyon. There, his aunt lived in a picturesque house with a commanding view of the Susacón valley. After coffee and a couple of shots of a local liqueur, we continued on our way along the rim of Chicamocha. When we reached a landslide blocking the road, we left the car and hiked to a peak overlooking the canyon.
After telling us about the area and pointing out the places where his family had historically operated farms in the surrounding hills, Hernando left us and headed back to town in his car. Sheena and I would laze about for a while, have a picnic on the edge of the canyon, and then hike back to town. As we sat, we talked about how much we’d fallen in love with Colombia. Being stranded in Susacón was really a blessing and we didn’t much care to leave.
On the hike down, Sheena and I begrudgingly brought up the topic of what to do about our transmission. Cycling through our options made my head hurt. Nothing was going to be easy, and nothing would be cheap. I thought about driving around the world with a transmission rebuilt by a deranged maniac and it made my stomach turn.
“Why don’t we just go home and pick up a transmission ourselves?” Sheena asked. The idea had come up before, but it was likely the most expensive option and it didn’t make any logistical sense. We reiterated this and put the idea away. We hiked on in silence. I turned the idea over in my mind as we walked through the eucalyptus and weeping willows, the raspberries and the stone fences. I thought about how much this place seemed like Northern California or Oregon.
It was true, going home would be expensive and there would be easier ways of getting a new transmission. But why not go home? It would cost more money, sure, but it would be refreshing. We could catch up with friends and family, reacquaint ourselves with American pizza, Mexican food, mountain biking and microbrewed beer. Colombia would be an easy country to come back to. In the end, which path would make us the happiest?
“So, what do you think about going home?” I said, to which Sheena’s eyes almost popped out of her head. “Let’s do it!” And just like that, we had created our own Option #4 and had selected it. Three days later we would be hopping on a plane from Bogota bound for Phoenix, retracing seven months of driving in a single day. It’s funny how one thing can lead to another.