At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.
After Nacho’s inspirational climb of the Alpe d’Huez we descended the switchbacks and were deposited in the quaint village of Bourg d’Oisans. We would spend the next few days making our way northwest to Paris, but before doing so we needed to grab a few odds and ends at the grocery store. We popped into town and found the nearest market, parked, and proceeded to drop essentials into the shopping cart. A medley of vegetables, a package of sausage and one of cheese, a fresh baguette—come on, we’re in France—a twelve pack of Leffe, and then we arrived at the discount bin containing marked down items nearing their expiration dates.
“Sweet baby Jesus, what’s that!” I could barely contain my excitement. “Why Sheena, I do say, it’s a package of nearly-expired, ground up dead horses!”
“Yes please!,” she squealed, and I happily placed it in the cart next to the beer. (more…)
About a year ago in Colombia, our transmission failed. We had been driving up a dirt road in the middle of the faraway mountains when Nacho voided his bowels, we were towed to a tiny mountain village where a deranged mechanic had his way with our poor Nacho, but then we lurked in and stole Nacho away and deposited him on a farm, cracking my side view mirror in the process, you may recall. You may also recall that we found no favorable, much less legal, options for getting our transmission working, so we flew home, bought a used transmission, cleaned it up so it looked new, packed it into a suitcase and checked it onto a plane, where upon our arrival we were detained by the evil Colombian customs office for three days before being released upon the payment of a hefty tax. After porting the transmission to the farm in the back of a Subaru I spent two weeks fixing Nacho, which involved installing the new transmission without aid of a jack. Twice. You may recall.
And, as you may recall, after all of that pain and suffering and hardship and money, our new transmission leaked. My lips formed into the shape of a sad rainbow, my eyes pinched shut, drool seeped from the corner of my mouth, and I fell to my knees while feebly punching the air before crumpling into the fetal position and sobbing like a pants-wetting kindergartener. The leak persisted for the next ten months through South America, across the Pacific to Malaysia, and into Thailand.
You may also recall that in Argentina Nacho was burglarized by a bad man with a crowbar, and many important things were stolen. He also broke Sheena’s treasured walking stick, recently collected from the shores of Lago Tromen, a lake which will only live on in our minds because the bad man also stole the camera that contained all of the pictures of Lago Tromen. I would be reminded of the bad man every day thereafter, especially the really hot days, because it has been impossible to replace my broken window with the correct window glass, rendering it impossible to roll down my window. This has been especially unappreciated since arriving in southeast Asia, because we don’t have an air conditioner and not being able to roll down my window in the stifling heat and humidity has caused my brain to begin to disintegrate from jungle rot.
When we arrived in Bangkok I declared to Sheena, “All right, I’m putting my foot down!” Sheena knows me well as a maker of frivolous demands and declarations, so she paid no immediate attention. However, my seriousness was hard to ignore when she found herself sitting in the waiting room of a garage in a Bangkok suburb surrounded by water cooled Volkswagen vans, including Nacho. Our VW Club friends in Kuala Lumpur had put us in touch with new VW Club friends in Bangkok, who had put us in touch with the best garage in the country for water cooled Volkswagen vans. Now Sheena knew I was serious. Our Thai friend Gak, who had accompanied us to the garage, also knew I was serious. My foot was down, and it would stay down until I had a non-leaky transmission, a window capable of one dimensional translation, and a usable side view mirror.
Given my deep mistrust of local mechanics, my immediate feeling when turning Nacho over to the hands of others was one of deep nervousness and stomach discomfort. The mechanics were an intrepid team of young Thai men, and they displayed their worthiness by immediately locating a new window and side mirror, and successfully replacing them. Next, Nacho was placed on a lift and made airborne. The intrepid Thai mechanics dispersed and quickly returned with, get this, all of the correct tools. I know, right? They had a triple square bit for my beloved CV bolts, circlip pliers, and even the big cylindrical tool used to remove the drive axle flanges, or whatever they’re called. They deftly removed my axle, noting that both of my CV boots were ripped, which they later replaced, and then removed my drive flange, or whatever it’s called, only to find that the main sealing o-ring was cut in half. And seeing as how the leak began on day one, I surmised that it was cut in half when I bought it, which made me quite angry indeed. But they had the right o-ring on hand to replace it, so my anger was forgotten, and I left for the evening to let the guys finish up.
It was about time. After only sixteen months on the road, we had finally managed to find a shop that used the right tools and knew what the hell they were doing. I also asked them to replace one of Nacho’s upper control arm bushings, which had disintegrated in Ecuador, and had been clanking around ever since. Driving away from the shop was like being born again.
With Nacho in tip top shape, and I use that term loosely, we were free to sit around in Bangkok traffic, meet with our new friends for lunch, sit in Bangkok traffic, hang out with our new friends over long and delicious dinners, sit in Bangkok traffic, and drive to the King Rama V monument to meet all the rest of the water cooled VW vans in Bangkok for an epic photograph depicting all of the vans in a row. Before and after the photo-op we gave tours to the curious of Nacho’s water purification system, hot water generation, interior remodel, and I gave a barely legal demonstration of Nacho’s onboard shower.
On one of our very last days in Bangkok I found myself sitting in Bangkok traffic. It was another marathon jam, and I hadn’t moved more than a few feet in the last 45 minutes, when who should I see but a traffic cop approaching on foot. The cop approached my window, which I had proudly rolled down, and I attempted small talk before realizing that he spoke no English. After some polite smiles and hand waving, he began to insist that I had made some kind of traffic violation. He seemed to be saying that I had run a red light.
“But I’ve been sitting here for 45 minutes,” I said, which didn’t matter since he spoke no English.
“Kai jai tai doo mai wai kai!” he insisted.
He pointed to a picture of a driver’s license, so I reached for the ash tray where I keep one of my many “extra” drivers licenses, but to my shock and horror it was missing. I made a mental note to reprimand Sheena for moving my unlawful decoy license, and I regretfully pulled my real international driving permit out from under the dash mat. He placed it in his ticket book and pointed to his clipboard, which contained several lines of cryptic Thai script. He read it to me, slowly and loudly.
“RAI MAI JAI…KWAI MOO GAI…” he went on for an eternity, and finally pointed to where it said “1,000”. I deduced that he was going to write me a ticket for 1,000 Baht, or around $35.
“But sir,” I said, uselessly, “I haven’t done anything wrong. I literally haven’t moved in 45 minutes!” It went back and forth like this for at least fifteen or twenty minutes, and at every opportunity I attempted to convince him to give me my license. Finally, through much frustration, charades, and incomprehensible jibber jabber, I convinced him to trade my license for a 1,000 Baht bill, which I was pretty sure he promised to hold onto while I followed him to the police station. He walked to his motorcycle and made a tunnel through the traffic, through which I followed him.
Several minutes later, after a number of close calls and nearly losing him in traffic, he stopped at a main intersection and got off his bike to stop traffic so that I could pull out. As I pulled into traffic, he signaled that he’d catch up. It should have come as no surprise that I never saw him or my 1,000 Baht ever again.
It is true that I was duped by a Bangkok motorcycle cop, and in doing so I have shamed my family and lost my reputation for being a stone cold cop tricker. But at the end of the day Nacho’s transmission doesn’t leak, I can see out of my side mirror, I can hang my arm out the window, and our front suspension probably won’t fall off. In the grand scheme of things we’d won. And besides, I had a really long and really delicious dinner with our new friends to attend to.
El Golpeador was a squat man who moved about hurriedly. He was missing half of his little finger, likely due to the rapidity with which he carried out his projects. As he approached Nacho, I could see through the pouring rain that he was carrying a bucket full of tools, none of which were intended for a rear wheel bearing replacement; a pipe wrench, a long bar, a hammer, vise grips. I got that sinking feeling, the one you get when you forget to set the emergency brake, and then watch the station wagon carrying your whole family roll backwards into fast moving traffic.
How did we get here? It all started when I failed to fix this problem in Guanajuato, as I eluded to in my last post.
On the way to San Miguel de Allende I carried out a meticulous series of troubleshooting steps to hone in on the problem. A casual observer might have seen me swerving violently, randomly pulling the hand brake, revving the engine, slamming on the brakes, creating an aura of danger about Nacho. To the trained professional, I was troubleshooting. The Van Whisperer. The frequency of vibration was independent from engine speed, so it wasn’t in the engine or transmission. Braking didn’t change the sound, so it probably wasn’t a CV joint. The vibration could be momentarily eliminated during hard right turns, so it probably had something to do with a wheel on the right side. The vibration couldn’t be felt through the hand brake, while it could be felt in the foot brake, so it was likely in the front wheel. There we go, front right wheel. So easy a mere child could do it!
When we arrived at the campground in San Miguel de Allende we settled in amongst enormous German and Swiss overlanding rigs, sliding into a state of rig envy. We’d been inside a few of these types at the Overland Expo, and knew they were luxurious. The elaborate electrical systems, the plush interiors, the indentured servants. The only vibration these things feel while driving is caused by crushing lowly Vanagons under their enormous tires. Yeah, we told ourselves, but good luck parallel parking. Lying to ourselves is a defense mechanism.
Over the course of our stay, we found San Miguel de Allende to be charming. The people were pleasant, the streets were kept clean, and its cobbled roads and brightly colored shops made it seem quaint. The place is full of retired foreigners; Americans, Germans, British, Canadians. Whereas this would usually bother us, it actually kind of works in San Miguel. It lacked the obnoxious English language solicitations and predatory corner-lurking salesmen. The town operated as a Mexican mountain town where foreigners happened to live. On nice days, groups of friends would meet at the tennis courts for a few games. Bulletin boards advertised Spanish emersion programs. I walked into a wine bar to ask where I could buy European beer, and toward the end of our conversation the woman asked if I spoke English. Turned out she was American too, albeit with a convincing Mexican accent, but it was never presumed that we would do business in English. This was, after all, Mexico. It was all very refreshing to know that a town like this was possible.
One afternoon we spoke to Hans, whose family operated our campground, to see if he knew of any good mechanics. The next morning, Silverio, a suspension specialist with 10 years’ experience, showed up with an assistant in tow.
I told Silverio that we wanted all of our front wheel bearings replaced. He crawled under Nacho and showed me that, in addition to our wheel bearings, our rack and pinion had too much play, and that the bushings holding the rack and pinion to the frame were all shot. For good measure, we asked him to have the brake rotors resurfaced as well, and to replace the front brake pads. We were going to lick this problem with the “replace everything” method. To make a good situation great, we didn’t even have to move Nacho from his place in the campground. Sheena, who at this time had been feeling ill for a few days, was able to sleep upstairs the whole time they worked. See? Breaking down in Mexico makes getting sick fun!
Without hesitation, the two of them started in on Nacho. Within minutes the rotors were off, they had the rack and pinion removed, and they were tapping the wheel bearings out. Before we knew it, they were walking into town carrying our rotors and the rack and pinion. By evening the rotors were machined, they had tightened up the steering, replaced the rack and pinion bushings, the front wheel bearings, and the front brake pads. The total cost was $102.
The next day, when the sun came up we hit the road. Shortly thereafter, terror settled upon us like a wet blanket. The sound was back, the low hum and vibration. I swerved violently a few times and grabbed the hand brake, just to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.
We pulled into the next town and asked about a mechanic, which is how we became acquainted with El Golpeador. I took him for a ride, showed him all of the symptoms, and told him what we’d already done. He walked around a bit, looked under the car, and made his announcement.
“It’s the muffler.”
He said it with such confidence, in the way that a politician makes a promise. I reiterated my extensive troubleshooting results, and he decided it was indeed not the muffler, and instead must be a rear wheel bearing. It was at this point that he disappeared into his garage, and emerging through the pouring rain with his collection of incorrect tools.
El Golpeador first grabbed his pipe wrench, slid his long bar over the handle, and tried unsuccessfully to remove the axle lock nut. After giving up, he jacked Nacho up and removed the wheel, but that was apparently the extent of his expertise. His next move was to use his hammer to ravish, with all of his strength, Nacho’s delicate brake drum.
“Stoooop! What are you doing!?” He looked up at me as if I were insane. “All you have to do is remove these two bolts and it’ll slide off!” He pulled out his vise-grips and removed the bolts while my mood continued to darken. As I watched him remove our brake pads, it was clear he had no idea what he was doing. He proceeded to loosen the brake backing plate before realizing that he couldn’t actually remove it without removing the hub lock nut. Next, he reached behind and started loosening the bolts that hold the hub housing together. Having done this job before myself, I knew this was a time consuming dead end road.
“What exactly are you hoping to accomplish? Once you get those bolts undone you still won’t be able to get the bearings out. You need to remove the lock nut.”
He tried to convince me that he could get the bearings off from the back of the stub axle. At this point I told him to stop, I got out the Bentley manual, and showed him an exploded view of the rear hub assembly. He still tried to convince me that he could do it, that he could defy the laws of the universe, that he could bend the space-time continuum. At this, I kindly asked him to put everything back together, which took considerable time, and then we left.
Dumbass. Everyone knows that Chuck Norris is the only one who can bend the space-time continuum. And so we flipped Nacho around and slowly made our way back to San Miguel de Allende to see Silverio again. The Mexican Chuck Norris.