28
Nov 2013
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 8 Comments

The Lost Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving morning and I’m sure the first thing on everyone’s mind when they wake up is, “I wonder what Nacho is doing today?” The truth is, this is the first time in our lives that we decided not to celebrate Thanksgiving. But don’t despair! We spent the day, and the last few for that matter, in the home of a wonderful family that has adopted us and treated us like one of their own. Our bellies are freshly full of water buffalo (mmm!) and tea, and we’re thankful.

But still, it is Thanksgiving, and so we thought we should do something thanky. As you might recall, last year we didn’t write a Thanksgiving entry either, so what follows is the story of last year’s Thanksgiving celebration in Patagonia. This is one of several new stories that were only included in our book.

Lastly, remember that tomorrow is Black Friday; it’s a day in America where we trample each other to a pulp at the gates of Wal Marts the nation over. As a shameless plug–the last one I’ll make this year–I will suggest that our book would make a great Christmas gift for the adventurer in your life. And it will save you from being trampled at Wal Mart. Saving lives and entertaining people, it’s what we do.

To the book >>

And without further ado…


We sat in hypnotized silence, swaying back and forth as we glided along the curvy shoreline of Lago Nahuel Huapi, the rain saturating our windshield just as fast as the wipers could clear it away. To our right, the dark water was made even more ominous by the jagged rows of rain-pocked waves, purposefully marching in rows across the lake’s surface, a deep opaque blue hinting at the extent of the water’s depth. The side of the road was lined with flowers waist high and three feet deep, vibrant yellows and blues and purples. We were surrounded on all sides by jagged Andean peaks bearing crowns of ice, and wearing streaks of iron ore and pumice and evergreen.

“Oh wow,” Sheena said, as if awoken from a trance. “Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.”

We’d had no use of knowing dates for so long, and often had to strain our minds to remember what month it was. Whenever I had to remember the date, I would start by trying to remember what season it was. From there I could work out the month, and then try to recall recent milestones that could give me some hint as to the day. Sitting in the passenger seat, being rocked back and forth along the winding lakeside road, Sheena must have been working it out in her head.

“What are we going to do? We haven’t even prepared?” It was true, a couple of months prior we had talked about doing a big Thanksgiving blowout. We had imagined cooking turkeys and sausage and stuffing, mashed potatoes, the whole bit, and all outdoors over a campfire. We would invite anyone we knew and have a great feast. But now we were a day away, the weather was cold and wet, and we had nobody to invite. It was looking like we’d spend the holiday alone, bundled up against the cold, eating whatever we happened to have in the van. Thanksgiving in Patagonia.

We drove on in silence, swaying with the curves as the rain battered the windshield.

An hour later the road had veered away from the lakeside, climbing and descending between mountains, crossing over rivers, and after a while the rain disappeared and was replaced by a strong wind pushing down on the road from the ridges above. We sailed out of the mountains and into the foothills, pushed along by a powerful tailwind. Up ahead we caught sight of what seemed to be several motorcycles cruising in the same direction as us. After a few minutes we had gotten close enough to realize that in fact they were bicycles. Four cyclists, bundled in their jackets, easily pedaled along at 45 miles per hour, helped along by the powerful tailwind. As we reached them, we realized that two of them were Matthias and Andrea, the Germans we’d met in Junin de los Andes after Nacho was burglarized.

We gunned the engine and pulled around them, Sheena waving frantically out the window. After we’d put a safe distance between us and them we pulled over and waited. Andrea arrived first, grinning wildly.

“Brad and Sheena! Hello! I can’t believe it!”

“Look who it is!” Matthias said, coming to rest in front of Nacho, out of the wind. “We have just ridden the fastest that we have ridden on our entire trip – 70 kilometers per hour! This wind is great! Meet our new friends, Wiebke and Axel.”

Wiebke was athletic and tall – perhaps six feet – and had wisps of blonde hair hanging down from her helmet. Axel had a nice smile and an athletic build. On the front of Wiebke’s bike sat her young daughter, Smilla, while Axel pulled a trailer carrying their other youngest girl, Selma, a three year old.

“Nice to meet you,” they said, shaking our hands, “these are our children.” Wiebke smiled at Smilla, who responded with a sweet, “hellooo!”

We exchanged greetings and talked for a while before we remembered Thanksgiving.

“As it turns out,” I said, “Thanksgiving is tomorrow—it’s the time of year when we North Americans celebrate the final meal that we shared with the Native Americans before driving them off their land. Basically a really big feast. Will you guys be around Bariloche tomorrow?”

“Ah yes, I saw it on an episode of Friends once,” Matthias said. “We will be in Bariloche, but we have been invited to stay at the house of a fellow cyclist who lives here.” He explained how this man, who has come to be known as “Pelado”—literally “Baldy,” on account of the fact that he has very little hair on his head—once tried riding his bicycle from Argentina to Alaska, but didn’t quite make it. Since returning home, he has opened his home to all cyclists who pass through. No reservations required, just show up and have free reign of the house, a bed to sleep in, a kitchen to use, and an instant friend. Only one catch: we were driving a car.

“Maybe if you get a cabin for the day we can come meet you for dinner.” They seemed sorry, but were already expected at Pelado’s house.

We loaded up and continued on toward Bariloche, sandwiched between Lago Nahuel Huapi and the towering snow-capped peaks of the Patagonian Andes. When we arrived it was late afternoon and cold. Rain fell in intervals and a freezing wind whipped up off of the southern shore of the lake, giving the town the feel of Zurich in the winter. We parked downtown and made our way to the office of tourism to find out about cabin rentals.

The woman at the tourism office showed us listings for several cabins, most of which were well out of our price range. We armed ourselves with the names of a few of the cheaper ones and hit the streets. For the remainder of the day we went from cabin to cabin, checking each one off of the list. Most were the size of small walk-in closets, which explained the low cost. Defeated, and with the sun gone over the horizon, we rolled out of town to the campground.

By the time we found the campground it was dark. We drove in and negotiated our way through the thick tangle of trees until the small dirt road ended. I would have to back up and turn around. Sheena got out and went to scour for possible camping spots on foot. Unable to see, I decided to back up blindly, aiming for what appeared to be a blank spot between enormous trees. Everything was looking good…looking fine…a little faster now…and CRACK! Nacho came to an immediate stop; I had slammed into a tree.

For a minute I just sat there, contemplating. Thanksgiving was a bust. I was cold. We had so looked forward to Bariloche, “The Gateway to Patagonia,” but it would more than likely be remembered at the freezing cold windy city where we crashed into a tree and ate Thanksgiving spaghetti.

“Brad!” Sheena said, running up to my window, “you’ve just run into a tree!”

In the morning our windows bore a thin skin of ice and we shivered in our down jackets as we brushed our teeth outside, trying in vain to capture a few stray rays of sunlight through the thick evergreen canopy. We loaded up our things and headed into town where we would check our email and then go to the grocery store to try to put together some kind of sad Thanksgiving dinner for two.

On the way to the store we swung by the Berlina microbrewery and hopped on their free Wi-Fi. The first message in my inbox was from Matthias, and had come the previous evening, right around the time I was slamming Nacho into a tree.

We finally found the “free house for cyclists.” Here is a very, very friendly family and we do feel a little bit like home. I think all the Germans gonna stay here a few days. But also we wanted to have a Thanksgiving dinner with our friends from Arizona. So I asked the guy if it would be ok to have a dinner all together in his house. He just says “Sí, Sí, Sí, no problem!” Here is a place of big hospitality and it’s no problem to find a place for Nacho (and for you to sleep)… there is a farmer in the neighborhood that sells meat and he was recommended by the people here. Should I ask for special meat?

We excitedly wrote back to Matthias and proceeded to drive to the grocery store, where we spent at least a week’s budget on all of the fixings for the best Thanksgiving blowout we could concoct.

“Bacon! Sheena, they have bacon! Can we do something with bacon?”

“Buy it!” Sheena wailed.

“I have some sausages here, how many sausages?”

“All of them!”

“Baguettes?”

“Is this Bastille Day? No! Put those down and find some dinner rolls!”

When we pulled into Pelado’s driveway on the shore or Nahuel Huapi, Nacho was full up with bags and bags of American soul food. Matthias met us at the gate.

“They didn’t have any turkeys,” he said, “but they have some chickens bigger than I have ever seen. The farmer is preparing them for us now, we must pick them up at 2:00.”

Inside Pelado’s house we were introduced to his wife, Felicidad, who was hanging out with Axel, Wiebke, and their children. After a tour of the property and Pelado’s backyard bakery, we got under way.

Pelado made two loaves of fresh-baked braided bread. Andrea and Matthias made a radish salad, procured two turkey-sized chickens, and provided copious amounts of beer and wine. Felicidad made a second salad, composed entirely of edible plants from the yard. Sheena and I commandeered the kitchen and proceeded to season and roast the chickens and made garlic mashed potatoes, sausage stuffing (with bacon), green beans (with bacon), and fried potatoes and peppers (with bacon). For dessert, Andrea made apple pie from scratch, but without bacon.

“This is great,” Pelado said as we filled the table with food, “I once saw Thanksgiving on an episode of Friends!”

Just as dinner was served, two more cyclists arrived; Renata and Arturo from Brazil. They had heard through the grapevine that there was to be an American holiday celebration, popularized by the TV show Friends, and they wanted to see what it was all about.

The food was incredible, and our international group of friends took to the gluttonous tradition like David Schwimmer to paleontology. As we ate, Pelado recounted for us his experience during his attempted bicycle trip to Alaska.

“I left this house in 2001,” he began, “with the goal of riding all the way to Alaska. I just decided to drop everything and go. I was going to ride until I got there, it didn’t matter how long it took.

“Everything went fine until I got to the border of the United States. I spent all of my Mexican pesos before I left Mexico, and then crossed the border. The first thing I did was go to the ATM machine to get US dollars. But when I tried, it said I had no money left. I immediately called home to see what was happening, and I was told that our economy had collapsed overnight and that the banks had no more money. Everything we had was gone!

“So now I was in America with no money. I asked the border guard what I should do, and he didn’t know. He said I should try the Red Cross. I had never heard of this ‘Red Cross’ before, but I rode there. When I arrived I told them that I had no money and no food. They took me in and gave me a place to sleep, and then they opened their cabinets and told me to take all the food I wanted. They filled my bike trailer with canned food! I couldn’t believe it!

“I continued riding through America, going from Red Cross to Red Cross, and every time they gave me a place to sleep and food to eat. After this I love the Red Cross. I am a big fan now, and I tell everyone how much I love them!

“When I arrived in San Francisco it was September, and the Saudis attacked the Twin Towers. This was a very sad time and everybody got closer to one another. I felt so much love, and I started wearing a banner in support of the victims. People would clap when they saw me ride by because I was riding in honor of them.

“But then,” he continued, “I ran into trouble. My visa in the United States was for three months, but because of my troubles I had only made it as far as Seattle when my visa ran out. I was so close to the border! But I was stopped by the police, and they realized that my visa had expired. They arrested me and deported me back to Argentina. I had ridden my bicycle half way across the world, and they sent me home when I was so close to the border! I was heartbroken. I have been here ever since. When I got back here I built an oven and started baking bread, and selling it in Bariloche.”

Pelado’s story saddened us. To have been treated with such hospitality in so many places ourselves, and to have felt warmth from strangers, the thought of our country deporting Pelado and putting an end to his dream, gave us something to contemplate. But after all of it, he still loved the United States, and above all he loved the Red Cross mission.

As night closed in around Pelado’s house we looked around the table. We were Americans and Germans, Brazilians and Argentineans. Through serendipity and great fortune we had all ended up in the same home to break bread together, and in doing so we had enjoyed our best Thanksgiving to date. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.

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27
Nov 2013
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 12 Comments

India or Bust

It’s a bright morning in Bangkok, and a beam of light reflects in just such a way from the rooftop of the drug factory across the way as to awaken me from my bear-like hibernation. We’ve been living in this apartment just down the street from the Bang Chak Skytrain station for a month, and we’ve finally accomplished everything that we wanted to accomplish here; Nacho has a new engine, we’ve published our book, we’ve made lots of friends, and we’ve begun to see Bangkok from residents’ eyes.

The previous evening after a dinner on the Arab Soi we wandered the back alleys past shops selling spices and fabric, past an Iraqi restaurant and rows of turban-clad men loitering around shisha pipes. We reached Sukhumvit Street and crossed over a pedestrian bridge with a view of the city. We stood there for a while watching people and cars go by before the backdrop of the city that now felt so familiar. We could imagine living long term in Bangkok, despite the fact that we’re small town mountain-loving people. But we have the itch to move on. We still have a long way to drive.

We had wanted to drive to India from Southeast Asia, but the task has proven impossible. To get there, we would have to drive through either China or Burma. Burma is a no-go; the government has made moves to open up to the outside world, but the borders remain closed at the time of our arrival. China is also a bust, as the Chinese government requests $8,500 in fees for us to cross from Laos to Nepal. With no overland options available, we’ve resorted to our favorite activity: vehicle shipping.

Our apartment is situated only five minutes from Bangkok Port, but we’ve just received word from our shipping agent that container loading has been moved to Laem Chabang Port, 100 kilometers away. Helpful as always, our agents at Hellmann Logistics offer to drive out to the port with us for container loading, and the give us a ride back to our apartment—a full day of work and half a tank of gas, and at no charge. But when our Thai friend Gak catches word of this, he simply won’t have it. If anyone is to accompany us to the port, it will be him! We let Hellmann off the hook and follow Gak, in his 1960’s VW bus, to Laem Chabang.

When we arrive in Laem Chabang, we’re met for lunch by more Hellmann agents, and then we all roll out to the port together. We stop shortly at the port entry gate while our agent goes inside to get clearance, and then we all hop in Nacho and drive into the port. When we get there the container is waiting and open, and I slowly, ceremoniously drive Nacho inside. I would say that it seems like only yesterday that we drove Nacho out of the container in Malaysia, but I’d be lying. It seems like an eternity ago. We’ve learned a lot since arriving in Asia, and this feels more like a capstone than the next step in a journey.

Our shipping agents feel it too. We’ve only just met, but they get caught up in it just like we do, snapping photos of us, Nacho, and each other for posterity. It’s a far cry from our first shipping experience. And did we ever mention how much we love Thai people?

We finish bidding ado to Nacho and then load up in Gak’s VW to head back to Bangkok. Gak has led us to believe that he is a better candidate than our shipping agent to bring us back to the city, and this is his time to shine. We cruise to the gas station and buy a couple of Cokes. A good start. It’s late in the afternoon when we turn off of the main highway and head toward the ocean.

We wind through small beachside communities and pull off at an overlook above Chon Buri where we try to hide our intense fear of the monkeys that lurk about, and then we’re off again, toward the fishing wharves on the outskirts of Bangkok city. We find our way onto one of the docks and drive the bus out to the end where workers shuck clams. We’re welcomed by the happy workers, who tell us they’re from Burma. Several people collect the clam meat, while others place the shells in bags to be sold and ground down into bulk raw material.

The work looks terribly difficult, and the workers receive very little compensation for their hard work. During our time in Southeast Asia we’ve come to meet many Burmese laborers; immigrants from Burma typically perform the low-pay manual labor and servant work for the surrounding countries of greater wealth, much in the way of some Latin-American immigrants in the United States. The difference here is the pay scale and the often extreme working conditions that they must endure. Still, they remain happy and smiling, and they send much of their meager income home to support their families.

After forty five minutes of hanging out with the Burmese workers, the sun begins to set and they call it a day. Despite the workers neither speaking Thai nor English, we somehow manage to have a lengthy conversation of charades and guesswork, and come away feeling that they’re a happy group of people.

With Nacho gone, we’re on our own. The ship will take 16 days to go from Bangkok to Chennai, stopping once in Singapore. We decide to spend one more week in Bangkok, and then move on to Chennai to get our affairs in order before Nacho arrives. Task at hand: one week to be as carefree as possible.

As a great stroke of good luck and coincidence, our friends Ben and Chelsea just so happen to be passing through Bangkok for a couple of days as a part of their vacation. I met Ben when he was a senior university student when he came to work as my engineering intern at Gore. We became good friends with both Ben and his wife Chelsea, but haven’t seen them since they left Flagstaff.

For two days we re-explore Bangkok’s tourist areas with our American friends: boat taxi rides up and down the river to visit temples, another trip to the Grand Palace, strolling Khao San Road and Old Bangkok, and some good meals at some of our favorite restaurants.

After having been on the road for so long, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be on a time-limited vacation, and sometimes feel that we make terrible tour guides. We usually just go about our life and strange and interesting things just seem to happen. But when people come to visit, as in the case of my mom, or Ben and Chelsea, we have to figure out fun things to do. And when we can’t remember what normal people consider to be fun, it makes our job prone to failure. In the end, though, I think we have succeeded in entertaining our friends.

Ben and Chelsea’s last night in Bangkok also happens to be our last, and we know it has to be special. But what to do? Sheena and I are terrible at planning fun things, so we do the only thing that we can think of: we call our trusty friends Pat and Gak for guidance. They’ll have an idea!

Gak and Pat agree that the best thing would be for all of us to meet for one final dinner at Bangkok’s best hole-in-the-wall Pad Thai restaurant, which also happens to have Bangkok’s best fresh-squeezed orange juice. Aha! Why didn’t I think of that? I remind myself that I lack the ability to proactively plan fun things.

We take a cab to the general vicinity of the restaurant with Ben and Chelsea, and get out at a very large roundabout. I call Gak to see where we should meet, and he tells me he’ll call right back. In the interim, my phone runs out of credit and so Gak never calls back. Meanwhile we find ourselves sitting in the middle of the roundabout watching a large rat eat a small pile of rice. It starts to rain. We feel the evening slipping away, free of fun. This won’t do! I think to myself. In a moment of clarity I decide to top up my phone, after which everything falls into place, and we find ourselves riding in the back of Gak’s bus to the Pad Thai restaurant.

It turns out that Pat and Gak are correct that this place has the best orange juice in all of Thailand. The Pad Thai is also good, and comes wrapped in a little package of fried egg. Nice touch. It feels good to be together with all of these people. After all of these months in Asia, Pat and Gak have become our family, and it’s tough to leave them behind. Pat keeps us laughing with his quirky explanations of Thai social antics. He explains that in Thailand it’s not considered rude to tell someone that they look fat.

“Why would it be strange?” he says, “They already know they’re fat.”

“Yes, but aren’t there Thai people who are trying to shed some pounds, who might be self-conscious about their weight?”

“Of course there are people who want to lose weight, but they still know they’re fat. It’s normal!”

“Even women?”

“Yes, women can be fat, too.”

Pat then goes on to tell Gak that he’s fat.

“Hey Fat Gak, do you only eat and never shit? Ha! See?”

Gak smiles and laughs. It would seem implausible that the idea of being self-conscious were so foreign to Thais, were it not for other conversations we’d had with our expat friends in Bangkok that verified this. We all have a good laugh and feel a little insensitive and politically incorrect.

At the end of dinner, we ask Pat to read the note he’s made in our book. His family runs a publishing business, and he has run off a copy of Drive Nacho Drive for us to keep in Nacho’s onboard library. We had asked him to write something for us on our dedications page. He had started writing in English, but then switched to Thai script in order to fully express himself. “You can read it after you learn to speak Thai,” he says, and then reads it aloud. His words are the distillation of all of the kindness and friendship we’ve come to know in our group of Thai friends. We’ll keep it forever so we can always remember our friends.

Gak has brought his copy, which he ordered online, and asks us to sign the dedications page as well. We can’t seem to capture our feelings as eloquently as Pat has, but we do our best. And with that we leave. After six months in Southeast Asia it’s time to move on, away from what we know, and straight into the unfamiliar madness of India.

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07
Nov 2013
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 17 Comments

The Rally Crashers

One thing we’ve come to appreciate about our Southeast Asian friends is their ability to coerce us into doing unusual activities that we would never otherwise do. This subtle trickery is achieved through nonchalance and a sprinkling of urgency, such as the time that TengTsen Khoo made us appear on The Apprentice, unclean, unshaven, and in my case, in desperate need of a haircut.

We should have recognized the signs when our Thai friend Pat called us one Saturday morning as we lounged around our Bangkok apartment.

“Hi Brad, are you guys busy today?” (Testing the waters.)

“I’m wearing my underwear, and planned to do so until dinner time. Why, what’s up?” (Naïveté.)

“There’s a classic car show today. Do you guys want to go with me?” (Trickery, coercion.)

“Sure, we’ll go. Sounds like fun! ” (Fell for it.)

“All right, meet me at the National Museum. You might see a couple of people in Volkswagens.” (Lies, all lies.)

After winding our way through Bangkok traffic, we find our way to the National museum. The casual manner in which Pat mentioned this opportunity has given us a false sense of calm. We turn into the National Museum and slam on the brakes. Something smells fishy.

There aren’t many Volkswagens around, though there are dozens of shiny classic cars; Bentleys, Rolls Royces, MGs, Porsches. A small boy walks by wearing some kind of 1920’s pantaloon shorts with suspenders and a driving cap. This, incidentally, is a perfect match to the 1920’s roadster that he’s arrived in.

Seeing our confusion, a young man—one of Pat’s accomplices—approaches.

“Hi Brad and Sheena! You can park over there. My name is Kaeg. No Sheena, that’s not how you say it. No, it’s not Keg either. Look, just call me Samurai, I think it’s easier for Americans to pronounce. Follow me, I’ll show you where to register and get your number plate.”

Samurai points to a parking space in between a classic Austin Healey and a Rolls Royce, and he’s dead serious. The cars are so shiny that as I pass by I can see my reflection in the paint, and I look like a total sucker. A sucker driving a mud-coated van with a rusty steel box hanging on the bumper.

Since arriving in back in Thailand, we haven’t found the time to wash Nacho. This means that our white paint is invisible under various layers of brown Cambodian mud, applied as if to a Jackson Pollock canvas over weeks of driving sloppy roads of brown Cambodian mud.

Sheena wants to hide. She pleads for me to take her home where she can crawl under the covers of our fluffy white bed, but It’s too late. Everybody stands around a flagpole and we listen to the King’s Anthem, and then official photographs are taken of the drivers of the classic cars, ourselves included. People take pictures of the cars, and Nacho succeeds in ruining all of the photos. We’re ushered back to our cars and we’re on the street, a big classic car train winding through Bangkok traffic—a classic car train with a fat, brown, 1984 caboose with a rusty box bolted on the back.

We drive out of the city and find our way to a temple in the countryside. Pat innocently joins the rally driving his VW Syncro Doka as if nothing were amiss. As if he weren’t taking the mickey out of poor, muddy, slightly ugly Nacho.

“Hi Brad and Sheena, you made it!”

“Yeah, here we are. Now, when you said that we were going to a car show, you might have forgotten to mention that we were in the car show.”

“What? Hey, do you know how to grease a CV joint? ” An underhanded subject change, no doubt. He knows that I have a soft spot for working on CV joints in parking lots. While I get under way, Sheena is snatched away by Samurai.

“Hello Sheena! Come with me, I’ll give you a tour.”

And with this, Sheena is whisked away for a tour of the temple, where she will spend the next ten minutes looking at sacred stuff, eating coconut ice cream, and buying little Buddha idols. Pat hands me paper towels to wipe the foul-smelling grease from my arms, and he correctly guesses that I prefer this to looking at temples.

Nacho ruins several more photographs and then it’s time to move on to the next stop. I still feel uneasy about sullying the clean image of this show.

“Pat, so, this is a classic car rally, right?”

“Yes! Are you having a good time?”

“Yes, it’s wonderful, but do you think that we really belong here? I mean, Nacho is from 1984.”

“Oh look, everyone’s leaving!”

Before we know it we’ve parked at another location and are climbing into a double decker London bus, which is to take us to lunch. Our new friend Dcim (Sim) is snapping photos and I’m minding my own business when all of a sudden an electrical wire shoots out of nowhere and its trajectory promises to decapitate Dcim from behind. My head-ducking reflex is faster than my verbal warning reflex, and I only manage to warn Dcim about the wire after he’s been clothes-lined by it. Oopsies!

Moments later, while observing the young boy in pantaloon shorts, my world temporarily goes black when a stationary tree branch collides with my temple. Double decker busing in Thailand is not for faint-hearted or the elderly. We wise up and put more emphasis on safety. We pass under several more low power lines, but this time we have an appointed powerline carrier to walk the length of the bus carrying the dangerous wires in his bare hands. Safety first!

At lunch, a troop of highly decorated dancing Thai children entertains us over tea and an elaborate Thai buffet. As is becoming a theme, we round out our meal with even more coconut ice cream. Before we know it we’re back on the bus, back in our cars, and jetting off to Jesada: an auto museum containing the collection of one eccentric collector.

The final stop of the day is at a university back in the city. We all park in a long line and go inside. Another buffet has been erected, which is divided into separate sections to represent the food from each region of Thailand. We gorge ourselves on more food, demarcating each course with coconut ice cream served inside of actual coconuts. Students from the university’s fine arts department take the stage and perform a traditional Thai dance.

And then it’s time for the awards ceremony.

The awards ceremony?

The awards ceremony. I listen to a barrage, many minutes long, of incomprehensible Thai language, listening for my name. Each person goes to the stage, and then I hear it.

“Ching who bing chang dee doh—Brad Van Orden—dingo chan—semi-ugly Volkswagen.”

I accept my award for ruining all of the classic car club’s photos, I forget to bow to my gracious host, and walk off the stage, where I proceed to the coconut ice cream stand to lose myself in more substance abuse.

A moment later, as I whip my tongue across my chin trying to mop up a few stray drops of liquidy coconut, Pat approaches.

“Hi Brad! I see you really like the coconut ice cream.” He pauses for a moment, and then continues. “You’re going on TV in four minutes.” And with that, he turns and begins walking away.

“Pat! Huh!?” By now I’ve forgotten about the ice cream on my chin and I fire off a barrage of questions as I trail behind Pat.

“On TV? But why? Do you know what kind of show? Is it, like, local or national?” I don’t even know where to start. Three minutes.

“Do you see that guy over there who looks like Elvis Presley? Every person in Thailand knows who he is. You’re going on his show. It’s the most famous car show in Thailand.” I shoot a worried look over to Sheena, my unfailing moral supporter—the woman who stands by my side through thick and thin.

“Leave me out of this!” she wails, and then turns her back on me.

Before I know what’s happening, I’m standing next to Elvis Presley, who goes by the name Sheeva, answering questions about our world trip. I can still smell the coconut ice cream on my own breath and out of the corner of my eye I see Sheena with a smug look on her face, and she’s eating—can it be? A fresh coconut full of ice cream! The scheming weasel!

“Problems? Oh yes, we’ve had many problems on our trip…”—I hope the coconut ice cream lady is still operational when this interview is over—“in Colombia our transmission failed…”—if she got the last coconut, I swear to God—“our brakes failed, our wheel bearings failed…”—Is that? No! The coconut lady! Where are you going?!

Here’s the interview; our section starts at 9:20.

When the interview wraps up, we stand around talking to Sheeva as dusk settles in. He’s passionate about classic cars with larger-than-life style, and he flips through photos on his iPhone, showing us the cars he’s designed and built himself. The Chevy he’s driving today is of his own design. As he talks, he thinks of something and his eyes light up. He opens the back door to his truck and rummages around for a minute, finally emerging with a bottle of his namesake rum, Sheeva WOP—WOP being an acronym for World of Peace, not a derogatory war-time slur for an Italian person. We happily add the Sheeva WOP to Nacho’s onboard mini bar.

As night settles on the parking lot, the rest of the car club has gone home. Now it’s only Sheeva and his camera guys; Pat, his wife and son; Dcim; the curator of the Jesada car museum; Sheena and me. As we begin parting ways, Sheeva tells us to wait. He runs to his Chevy, opens the door, and grabs the dreamcatcher that hangs from his rearview mirror; we later learn that this dreamcatcher is a part of his brand persona, appearing in several of his TV intro clips for his show. He presents the dreamcatcher to us and wishes us luck on our trip.

Just before we all head our part ways, the curator of the Jesada museum has exciting news to share with us.

“We are so happy to have you in Bangkok,” he begins “and as you know, next week is the Queen’s birthday.” True, true, we did know this. Go on. “So the Jesada Museum would like to invite you and Sheena to drive a historic miniature car from the museum in the Queen’s birthday parade.” My first instinct is to shoot a glance at Pat to see if he has anything to do with this. No, I think to myself, Pat’s brand of trickery is far more subtle.

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02
Nov 2013
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

Nacho’s New Heart

The forklift driver carefully maneuvered the arm in front of Nacho’s sliding door. The engine hung idly from a chain as the driver used the controls to square up the arm with the opening in the side of the van. Just then the skies opened up and Bangkok was engulfed in a thunderous downpour. Water immediately gushed from the middle of our rain gutter, drenching our maple floor. Things got tense quickly. With one hand I tried to divert the flow of water away from our floor, while the other held the rubber tire in place on our living room floor so that our new engine could be set down without gouging anything.

“Watch the cabinets! A little higher! Okay, set it down!” Nobody spoke any English, so I might as well have been yelling Shel Silverstein poems.

“Did you hear about Ticklish Tom? He got tickled by his mom! Wiggled and giggled and fell on the floor! Laughed and rolled right out the door!”

About a year ago when we arrived in Tierra del Fuego, Nacho’s engine started idle surfing worse than usual. At idle, the engine would cycle between 800 and 2,000 RPM repeatedly. Sheena would sit in the passenger seat and imitate the sound so as not to go crazy herself.

“Reer…REER…reer…REER…reer…REER…”

“Sheena, get ahold of yourself! Come on now, my love, snap out of it!”

“Reer…REER…reer…”

Normally I would simply adjust the throttle position switch or the air mix screw, or else replace the Temp II sensor to fix this. This time, the problem remained. Upon removing the throttle body it became clear that it was too worn out to any longer control the air flowing through its various gaps.  We idle surfed our way to Buenos Aires, Kuala Lumpur, and all throughout Southeast Asia.

I began to worry about our engine, so I looked to online forums for reassurance. “These engines are great—they’ll last upwards of 190k miles,” they would say. At over 200k miles, Nacho had the heart of a smoking octogenarian.

In Northern Thailand there were two occasions when the roads proved too steep for us to drive up, and we were unable to proceed. We had to back down the hills and find other ways to our destinations. This happened several times in the Americas as well, and we began to feel nervous for our own safety as the Himalayas loomed closer. It seemed Nacho’s 5,800lb FUPA was no match for our 95 horsepower smoking octogenarian engine.

As I sat in Sukothai, Thailand replacing every one of our engine wires after they were melted into a ball by a near engine-fire I cried uncle. Nacho needed a new engine. It just so happened that we knew a guy who knew a guy. Meet Pat: our Thai Volkswagen ambassador and knower of all things important. He selflessly offered himself up as our engine swap guru.

Pat quickly sprung into action by contacting a garage just outside of Bangkok that specializes in, get this, putting Subaru engines into Volkswagen Vanagons. The garage has done around 50 conversions already, and with great success. And cheap. Everything was set up—all I had to do was show up with an engine. The swap would take 10 days.

Without our trusty steed, we’d need a place to stay. Rather than paying double price for a seedy hostel, we opted to pay half price for a sweet apartment of our own. We would do the engine swap while using the apartment as our headquarters for publishing our first book. At the end of the stay we’d ship out for India. It would be perfect.

First things first: it was time to find an engine. But where to find a Subaru engine in Bangkok? Simple, Pat assured us. We’d simply go to the place that sells Subaru engines. Bangkok has everything.

Pat swung by and I followed him in what would be the first of several long trips to various places around the city. We wound our way through highways and surface streets to the autoparts district, and found the place with dozens of Subaru engines stacked atop each other. Pat had called ahead, so they had already pulled down two EJ25 engines for us to choose from. I pulled out my compression tester and we went to work.

The first engine fired right up, but sounded a little rough. I did the compression test and found one cylinder to be a little bit low. The next engine purred like an abnormally silent kitten, and tested at 152psi all the way around. Perfectly balanced, and with only 62k miles on it. Bingo!

Due to very strict emissions and mileage allowances in Japan, car owners must frequently replace their engines or buy new cars to keep up. This creates a surplus of lightly-used engines which must be disposed of. Thailand has a program to import these engines at a very low cost; our engine was imported as a part of this program.

I paid the man and he loaded it into Nacho’s living room while the sky released a flash flood onto Nacho’s maple floor. Once the rain subsided I lashed it down with a ratchet strap and we were GTG (good to go).

We had always heard rumors about performing engine swaps in Thailand. It was meant to be very cheap. A standard conversion to an EJ25 engine stateside typically runs somewhere in the neighborhood of $9,000 all said and done, often more. We’ve even seen cases where the van owner does the work himself, and still spends over $10,000. We had heard that in Thailand it could be done for around $3,000. But what of the workmanship? Would this be a beer can and bubble gum job?

When we got to Bangkok a couple of months earlier and met with the VW Club of Bangkok, we were amazed to find that almost every one of the T3 vans had been converted to Subaru engines, and everyone loved them. We were sold.

We left the engine store and drove to the outskirts of town to Soonthorn Garage, where Nacho would live for the next 10 days.

A couple of days later, Pat picked me up at our apartment in Bang Chak and drove me out to the garage to check on the progress. The mechanic had removed our poor old engine and we found it in the middle of the floor alongside its replacement. The old engine looked sort of like a dead hobo tangled up in a fishing net, while the new engine looked like a freshly manufactured Kalashnikov killing machine. Still, I found myself sitting and staring at the old engine, remembering all we’d been through. I’d pretty much replaced or fixed everything on that old engine. I knew it inside and out. I could almost hear its surfing idle.

REER…reer…REER…reer…

We dropped off a new set of head gaskets and other assorted doo-dads that I’d ordered from the States so that our engine would be totally fresh. I handed a new clutch throwout bearing to the mechanic, took one last look and we went on our way, back to the city to write.

Back in the city, Sheena and I fell into a routine of writing in the mornings, and then heading out for lunch. Our apartment was situated next door to a pharmaceutical factory, and every day a group of street food carts would congregate outside to feed the workers. This was our usual lunch for the duration of our stay in Bangkok. In the afternoons there was more writing, and then in the evenings we’d head out. Sometimes we’d go to our neighborhood night market to buy food to bring back for a night in, while other nights we’d head out on the town. You know, to the Italian Film Festival, or to the mall, where you can buy a Hello Kitty backpack or a $1.1 million dollar car.

The mechanic called on the final day and mentioned that I’d need a new starter. Thinking that I knew best, I ensured him that our starter was fine, and that I’d replaced it in Colombia as a part of our mass car parts smuggling operation. He begrudgingly agreed to keep it, and told me I could come check out Nacho’s new heart.

The ever-generous Pat took another afternoon off of work to pick me up at the apartment and bring me the 40 kilometers out to the garage. When we arrived Nacho was out having some final welding done for the modified bumper mount. The old mount used the engine brace to support the weight of the bumper, but the engine brace had been moved to accept the new engine, so some handy work was required. Within a few minutes we heard the faint purring of a smoother-than-usual baby kitten, and knew it must be little Nachito.

I was ready to go. It was test drive time. I walked over to Nacho, hopped in, and turned the key. The starter emitted a shrieking noise like a dying hyena, and then remained engaged with the flywheel, producing a deadly grinding noise. I killed it and shot a glance at the mechanic. He looked uneasy. I hit the key again and heard nothing but a light zipping noise.

As it turns out, the mechanic knew what he was talking about. My starter had 9 teeth, which engaged perfectly with the VW flywheel. The new Subaru flywheel required a 10 tooth starter, meaning that the old model wouldn’t work. The old starter succeeded in a few starts, but then the mismatch in gears finally sheared off the head of the starter motor gear. Pat brought me home.

The next morning I took a taxi onto the motorway, where I was picked up by Pat’s company van on its way to work. I waited at Pat’s work until he was finished with his meeting, and then the van took us to the garage. Having arrived at lunch time, I went with the chauffeur and workers who had accompanied us in the van to the food stall down the road for some fried rice and congealed-blood soup. And then it was time.

We walked to the garage and found Nacho ready to go. I turned the key and the engine jumped to life, and then assumed a low purr. In fact, the engine idled so silently that from the driver’s seat it was impossible to tell if the car was even running. No vibration, no sound; the engine was perfectly balanced and perfectly tuned. The only evidence of life was seen by reading the tachometer.

Driving the van was like a dream. When I pulled out of the driveway it was clear that things had changed. Stepping on the gas no longer produced a delayed, slow acceleration, but rather a sharp and powerful forward jump. I pulled onto a country road and gunned it. The van accelerated like a small performance car. I could feel myself pressing back into the seat from the acceleration. On the motorway back to the apartment I decided to see how fast it’d go. I pressed the accelerator and effortlessly reached 90 miles per hour, but thought better of it and backed off. Nacho’s still morbidly obese, after all.

Nacho was a power machine! The Chuck Norris of slightly ugly 1980’s camper vans!

THE VERDICT

Old engine, by the numbers: 2.1L Volkswagen Wasserboxer

  • Year mf’d: 1986
  • Power: 95hp
  • Torque: 117 lb-ft
  • Fuel economy: 17mpg – highway

New engine, by the numbers: 2.5L Subaru EJ25D

  • Year mf’d: 1997
  • Power: 165hp (74% improvement)
  • Torque: 162 lb-ft (38% improvement)
  • Fuel economy: 21mpg – highway (24% improvement)

 

PROBLEMS?

The van drove like a dream right from day one. We had heard issues with the old radiator not being able to cool the engine adequately, but our new engine runs cooler than our old one. When our engine speed gets over 4k RPM the engine cuts in and out. This is a safety feature, and I believe that it’s meant to be overcome by having a neutral sensor to tell the engine that it’s not in neutral, which the Vanagon doesn’t have. I’m now in the process of building a neutral sensor to overcome this, but it’s not a problem for daily driving. The one downside I can think of is the loss in ground clearance caused by a low-hanging oil pan. This can be remedied by a $400 low profile oil pan, but I think I’ll wait until I get home to swap it out.

THE COST

This is what everyone really wants to know. Remember that the average cost for this conversion back home is around $9k, and often involves lots of DIY work. This conversion was completely hands-off, turn-key, and was performed flawlessly.

Engine + wiring harness: $910

Gaskets/seals:$290

Speed sensor: $69

Labor, misc parts: $2,436

TOTAL: $3,705

And for this extreme bargain (according to me), or hefty frivolity (according to Sheena), I have promised my wife that I will use Nacho as my daily driver for the next forty years. I was already planning to do so, but seriously, Sheena. For this steal of a price you damn me to a future of driving the most awesome car in all the world, a future of lunchtime parking lot siestas, of style and luxury and power? I bite my thumb at you, dear Sheena, for I am the winner here. I am biting my thumb now, and it tastes like sweet victory.

And speaking of sweet victory, we published our book shortly after Nacho’s heart transplant. If you haven’t read it yet, click here to go to it. If you already have, help us out by leaving a review for it on Amazon, because reviews sell books. Thanks!

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