“What are these car parts?” I had been sitting at the DIAN office for hours as Alicia tirelessly entered information about my illegally smuggled goods into her computer. One should expect nothing less from a Colombian version of the IRS. Sheena still sat outside on a concrete island in between two lanes of traffic, studiously reading her e-book.
“In the one bag I have a transmission. The other suitcase has wheel bearings, nothing more.” I was lying, but only because I didn’t think it mattered. It probably made no difference to Alicia, on whom the difference between a hub, a stub axle, a catalytic converter and a wheel bearing would be lost anyway.
“And what is the value?” I just wanted to get out of there, so I made something up. “The transmission is about $700, and the wheel bearings are $85.” It was my second mistake, because at the time I didn’t know that I would have to back it up with official proof. I was digging myself a deep hole. After a few hours of paperwork and computer entries, all I had to do was go to the Cargo Port and pay my import taxes.
“Just tell them that the parts are elementos de arte oficio,” a random stranger told me as I left the building. “Otherwise you’ll have to pay high taxes. ” I told him I didn’t understand. “You’re only allowed to enter the country with personal items. If you’re a tennis player and you enter with a tennis racket, this is an elemento de arte oficio. It’s something that you use to perform your hobby. It’s a personal item. Just tell them you’re a mechanic and these things are for you to perform your hobby. They’re like your tennis racket.”
At the cargo port, I was told to find an agent, give them my Customs papers, and pay the associated taxes. According to Alicia, I should be suckling the sweet milk of Freedom’s teat by day’s end. I promptly found a customs agent, handed him my papers, and told him I was there to settle my debt. “It should be quick,” I said, “these are elementos de arte oficio.” He mustered a contrite giggle. “Sorry, I don’t think so,” he said. So much for that idea. And not only was he sorry about my lame attempt to sidestep the laws of The Man, but furthermore I was not even allowed to handle payment of my own import taxes. I would have to employ the services of a Customs Agent, or find someone who lived in Colombia with a commercial license to act as a Customs Agent. Importing my contraband-ridden suitcases basically involved the same process as importing our van.
Day one came to an end and our transmission was still on lockdown in the damned DIAN office at the airport. I regretted not pepper spraying the Customs Agent and making a run for the door when I had the chance. That evening I put out the word on our Facebook page that we needed help, and a few hours later we were in luck. The coworker of a friend of one of our Facebook followers would meet us the following morning and accompany us to the Cargo Port to pay our simple fee. DIAN had gone too far this time – we had called upon a third degree of separation for help.
Omar met us in front of our house at 9AM where we hailed a really expensive cab. Upon arriving at the Cargo Port, we were told that we must use a special software program to fill out more paperwork before we could pay the import tax. They had a computer with the software that we could use, but no user manual. The efforts of Omar, a professional importer, and me, a professional software designer, were useless against the confusing and non-user-friendly DIAN software. Recognizing our conundrum, we opted to visit a Customs Agent in Bogotá to see if they could help. Another expensive taxi ride ensued, and we soon found ourselves sitting in the office of a Customs Agent. The prognosis? In three days we could have our illegal contraband, and it would only cost us $180 on top of the import fees. We declined the nice agent’s offer and took another expensive taxi ride back to the Cargo Port, where we withered away the rest of the day. On our way out of the building on our way to hail another expensive taxi, we found a mysterious fortune-teller type named “Miss Ofelia” who could meet us in an internet café the next day and fill out our paperwork for a fee of $90.
The next morning Omar took another day off of work and met us at the internet café. I was armed with fake receipts for my transmission and “wheel bearings”, reflecting the exact values I had reported to Customs. Miss Ofelia clicked away on the computer for a couple of hours, eventually producing separate sets of paperwork for each illegal item I was importing. All I had to do was bring them to the Customs Agent to pay my taxes. Of course, it couldn’t be so easy. When I presented the papers to the Customs Agent I was told I could only pay my taxes at the bank, and that I should bring my receipt back to him get another official receipt with a stamp on it. Only then could I bring that receipt to DIAN where more paperwork could be done.
I went to the bank and paid my import taxes – another $200 – but I couldn’t get a receipt because the computer system was down. After a few hours the system returned, I got my receipt, and we headed to the DIAN office at the airport. Now it was time for Alicia to actually inspect my bags to be sure everything was as I said it should be. Together we inspected the transmission. She looked at it cluelessly as I described what it did and ensured her that it was brand new and not used. Next it was time to inspect my pack of lies – suitcase #2. When I opened it, Alicia looked so disgusted I thought she would lurch all over my stuff. She looked at the pile of rusty parts and the timing light that looked like a gun. “Those parts are all used. It’s illegal to import used car parts. And what is that gun?” I tried to explain how the hubs and stub axles were somehow actually wheel bearings. I placed a stub axle into one of the hubs and spun it, “See? It spins, so it’s a wheel bearing.” I next tried to explain that the catalytic converter didn’t really count, and that I’d forgotten about the timing gun. After a few minutes of my backpedaling she finally took pity on me.
“I didn’t see anything,” she said. “Just wrap up those parts so I can’t see them. I never saw anything.” Next, she grabbed the catalytic converter and handed it to me. “Put this in your bag. It was never in the suitcase at all. I never saw it. Also, take this gun, throw away the packaging, and put it in your bag. ” Somehow rules were being bent in our favor. We had out-patienced the Colombian IRS! I walked out of the quarantine room with a backpack full of undocumented contraband, watched Alicia type some more information into the computer, and then I was handed a piece of official-looking paper.
“You’re free to go,” she said. All at once the taste of freedom came rushing back and I remembered what liberation felt like. I grabbed my suitcases and wheeled them out the back door into the overcast, chilly air of Bogotá, handing my official papers to the police guard at the door. All said, including airline baggage fees, import taxes, paperwork fees, and three days of taxi rides, it had cost us $721 to get our transmission and other assorted parts from the USA to Colombia.
After a day-long car trip from Bogotá to Susacón with Hernando and Constanza, it was time to get back to work. We reacquainted ourselves with our little cabin and took a day to relax. We stocked up on firewood and filet mignon for the grill – we weren’t here to rough it, after all – and prepared ourselves for the work ahead.
As a warm up for installing the transmission, I decided to start off by replacing our rear hub housings, stub axles, and wheel bearings. We’d had two wheel bearing failures in close succession in Mexico and Guatemala, and I wanted to be sure that those were behind us. I figured the most likely cause for the second failure was a bad installation by the Mexican mechanic, but I wanted to be sure. I installed the salvaged hub housings and stub axles from my smuggled inventory, and replaced the wheel bearings for good measure.
Next, I tackled a few other minor jobs around the van. In many cases I was taking preventative steps to solidify what I thought were weak spots to avoid future problems, and in some cases I fixed problems that actually needed fixing.
Our CV joints have had a history of problems, starting long before we left on our trip. In Costa Rica one of our axles separated from the stub axle when all of the CV bolts simultaneously came loose, and recently the CVs had started to intermittently click – a sign that they were wearing out. To avoid more problems, I rotated the axles from side to side to give the CV bearings a new surface to wear on, replaced a couple of worn CV boots, and safety wired all of the bolts together so that it would be impossible for them to come loose again.
The wire for our oil pressure warning light has been frayed for some time, after having been badly burned in a confrontation with an exhaust pipe. I cut a new strand of wire and replaced it, noting in the process that the wire had been much worse than I’d originally thought.
In the interest of simplification, I decided to remove our air conditioner. I’d never actually hooked it up, and it simply served to be in the way of me accessing the left side of the engine. It was the air conditioner’s fault that I hadn’t seen the frayed oil pressure light, after all. Once I got it all out on the ground I felt a lot better, and in the process Nacho lost about 50 pounds.
Our front brakes had started causing us problems in Costa Rica when the pistons froze while leaving the trout farm. I took this opportunity to give our front brakes a makeover; I rebuilt the calipers, replaced the piston seals and dust boots, replaced all of the brake hardware and springs, and installed a fresh set of braided stainless steel brake hoses. The fact that our rotors had been warped in the Costa Rica incident would be hardly noticeable through the awesome performance of our nearly new brakes.
Since I was doing the front brakes, I figured I might as well do the rear while I was at it. I found that one of my rear wheel bearing seals had allowed grease to escape and coat one of the rear brake shoes, so I thoroughly cleaned both shoes, sanded 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 transmission. When I removed the rear brake drum on that side, I had found that he hadn’t bothered to tighten the bolts that hold the brake system to the hub housing. And while he was at it, he stole both of my brake shoe return springs. Hernando volunteered to go over to his shop to get them back, but the maniac denied everything. Instead, I was forced to manufacture new return springs using things we found on or near the farm. I knew that watching MacGyver would pay off some day.
Since I was in a fix-it mood, I decided to install an override for our automatic battery separator. Since leaving home, I had a near-constant feeling of discontent with the battery separator that would automatically connect or disconnect our starting and house batteries depending on their respective voltages. I decided that it would better if I could override its hard-coded decisions, so I installed a manual battery separation switch next to our radio.
Finally I had procrastinated enough and it was time to install our new transmission. Since trying to borrow a jack from the local mechanic had backfired, I decided to try it without a proper jack. I rigged up a series of ratchet straps instead, which would allow me to hoist the transmission into place. I replaced the pilot bearing, clutch, and pressure plate, and then hoisted the transmission. The ratchet straps turned out to be less than ideal for the job, so I had to position myself under the tranny and basically hump it into place using my pelvis. It was the most grotesque thing I ever did to a tranny.
In the last few weeks before the transmission failure, the starter had occasionally ignored my pleas to start. I took the initiative to replace it as well before it left us stranded. With everything in place I turned the key and pumped life into Nacho for the first time in six weeks. Everything went great until I depressed the clutch and tried to shift. From Nacho’s belly the sound of crunching metal emanated. Something was totally whack with the transmission. After much debate and many phone calls I decided to remove the transmission again to see if all was well within the bell housing. This time I located a proper jack to help me along.
After removing the transmission I found that everything was as it should be in the bell housing, although I noticed that the bracket that stabilizes the clutch slave cylinder was, and always had been missing. At this realization I sprung into action and employed my blacksmithing skills to create a new bracket out of a piece of steel I found in the barn. I also noticed that the reason for the metal grinding was an incorrectly installed clutch throwout arm. I fixed the arm and got everything ready to reinstall.
With the jack, the installation went much more smoothly the second time. I jacked that puppy into place, reattached the CV joints and safety wired them in place, and then bolted all of the other associated doo-dads in place. I re-bled the clutch one more time for good measure and fired Nacho up. This time when I changed gears I heard nothing but Nacho’s deep purr.
Later on I did a full tune up; new fuel filter, spark plugs and wires, new air filter, distributor rotor, and a new idle stabilizer. I finished it all off by adjusting the timing to add a few extra hamster wheels to Nacho’s total power, and then took it for a test drive. Cruising the streets of Susacón filled me with a sense of liberation akin to that of Timothy Robbins after he’d crept through the sewers and stumbled into the forest in Shawshank Redemption. On my way back to the farm I passed the deranged mechanic of Susacón walking on the sidewalk. Our eyes connected for a split second and it felt like I was staring into the devil’s soul. When I got home, Sheena and I celebrated with a barbeque and some Club Colombia beer.
The following morning we Ioaded Nacho and said goodbye to Luis and Constanza. In a display of true Colombian hospitality, they told us we could stay in their home in Bogotá for as long as we wanted as a liberation gift. We locked up the cabin, pointed Nacho’s big, dumb, blunt nose out of the farm gate, and slowly pulled out onto the winding mountain road toward Bogotá. Susacón, it’s been lovely. Maybe one day we’ll ,meet again.