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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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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