Aug 2013

Asia, Blog


A Series of Unfortunate Events

It all started with a little bump.

“What on Earth was that?” Sheena asked, wide-eyed and alarmed. “Just a little bump,” I said reassuringly.

As dictated by Murphy’s Law, it was 92 kilometers into a 100 kilometer diversion off of Thailand’s northwestern mountain circuit that would have taken us to a high mountaintop campsite next to a glistening lake, when the road turned up at an unnaturally steep gradient. As we rounded the bend we saw the road kick straight up and we knew it was over before it began. I gunned it, we slowed, I kept the pedal on the floor, we slowed more, I feathered the clutch, and then the engine died.

“Bloody hell.” Just a few days prior we’d come within 10 kilometers of the highest point in Thailand before we were forced to turn around for lack of power. Nacho weighs 5,800 pounds and we have a 90 horsepower engine. Solid.

Without engine power to boost our brakes I couldn’t hold Nacho there on the hill for long, so I slowly guided us backwards until we came to a small side road. I wedged Nacho up onto the path and started the back-and-forth motion of a 36 point turn, Austin Powers style. Finally, I pulled onto the road, but when I did, the steepness of the side road exceeded our exit angle and our exhaust pipe and rear bumper slammed into the ground.

“Probably nothing!” I said as we carried on. I made a mental note to check that out later. Two days later I finally remembered to look at it, and found that we’d dented our bumper a little, but the exhaust pipe looked fine. When the exhaust pipe fell off the next day, it became clear that, in fact, the exhaust pipe was not fine.

All right, no exhaust pipe. The muffler was still there, so seemingly the only difference was that exhaust gases would come out the side of the van instead of being diverted backwards. We carried on through Chiang Mai, and drove a few hundred kilometers south to the town of Sukothai where we imagined ourselves passing our days strolling among ancient temple ruins.

“The idle’s a bit erratic,” I told Sheena. “I’m going in for a closer look.” We’d checked into a guesthouse, and that’s where I left Sheena as I walked to the field next door to see why Nacho was misbehaving. I removed everything from the back and popped the engine lid for a closer look.

Lots of dirt, little bit of oil—normal.

Throttle position switch still clicks—good to go.

No loose connections, no broken hoses—sweet action.

A big charred ball of wires stuck to the exhaust heat shield…hmmm.

My mind went into analytical mode, recounting the possibilities. Oh yes. Mmhmm. Oh, of course. That’s bad. Soon enough I’d realized why engineers invented exhaust pipes in the first place. Whenever I sat at idle, the heat from our muffler had been wafting straight up into the engine compartment rather than being diverted safely out the back. This had caused the heat shield to become red hot, which in turn melted our main engine wiring harness, which was inexplicably strung right across the heat shield. I picked it up and inspected it, but it was obvious that all of the wires had melted and shorted together, causing all 14 of them to become one big charred mess. It’s a miracle Nacho didn’t burst into flames, as this charred ball sat directly under our brittle plastic semi-leaky fuel rail from 1984.

I hopped on a little girl’s bike that I found at the guesthouse, and pedaled it to the nearest home supply store, where I bought 30 meters of monofilament wire. Not exactly “the right stuff”, but one can’t be picky when one’s engine is in shambles and one’s wife is contentedly sitting in her comfortable guesthouse, unaware that she might have reason to be discontented.

And that’s the story of how I came to be sitting in the hot field in Sukothai for the whole day rewiring our entire engine. Thank goodness for multimeters and beer.

Being that we were still on Earth, and thus still under the constant pull of gravity and Murphy’s law, it started to rain just as I was finishing up. And boy did it rain. And rain. And rain. I opted to save the test drive for the next morning, when we would jet out of town to explore the nearby temple ruins.

When morning rolled around we loaded Nacho up and crossed our fingers. I turned the key, and to our collective delight Nacho whimpered to life, stuttered, nearly died, and then resumed an unhealthy idle fluttering between 800 and 1500 RPM. Yes! Back to normal!

I threw it in reverse and pressed the gas. Rather than moving backwards, as expected, we traveled straight down, approximately eight inches, into the ground, which was unexpected. Huh.

As it turned out, the heavy rain had turned our field into somewhat of a soil crème brûlée. The slightest movement of our tires had caused us to break through the crispy top layer and sink into the clay custard below. Out came the sand ladders, out came the shovel.

Damn you, Murphy!

The white guy with the tiny shovel caused quite a sensation, and soon we had a small audience of old Thai ladies and seemingly helpless backpackers from the guesthouse who must have forgotten that it’s customary to offer one’s help when a fellow countryman finds himself stuck in the mud.

After several nearly successful tries, which saw our tires slipping deeper and deeper into the custard, the little old Thai ladies decided that we would not be successful without their help. They sprang into action, throwing bits of debris into our tire holes, and then motioned for me to fire it up. I delicately put it in reverse and slowly released the clutch. Seeing little promise of success, the little old Thai ladies started pushing. The bigger of the two pushed on the front bumper, while the smaller one, weighing in at around 75 pounds, placed her hand on my door handle and pulled with all of her might.

Slowly Nacho crept backwards, and soon I was crawling out of the quagmire, trying not to run over the skinny lady, who was still holding onto my door handle. Success! The backpackers went back to their coconut waters and their books, the old ladies helped us wash off our sand ladders in the well, and soon we were on our way to the welder to get a new exhaust pipe.

What a cluster. And to think, this all started with a little bump.

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Dec 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

The Saddest Desert Clown

The moment the man spoke, I knew we were in for a ride.  He had been standing there harassing another vehicle, and was just finishing up when he saw us coming slowly up the hill toward him.  Immediately he snapped to attention, dollar signs in his eyes, and frantically waved us over.

As the police officer approached our window he straightened his back to give the illusion of professionalism.  He looked at me and inhaled, pulling the corners of his mouth back to reveal his teeth, raising his eyebrows, and telling us with his grimace that we had really screwed up.

“I pulled you over because you have committed a serious infraction,” he said.  He didn’t tell us what we’d supposedly done wrong until he’d planted the fear in our hearts and given it enough time to take root.  He slowly swept his gaze over his boots, down the road behind us, along the side of our van, and then stopped at my face, staring, trying to be intimidating.

The moment he spoke I figured him out.  His predictability was pathetic.  In northern Peru all of the cops we’d come across had been nothing more than clowns in uniform, and he was no different.

“You, unfortunately, were speeding.  What is the reason that you speeding so fast? This is a serious infraction.”  He peristaltically barfed the words up from his gut and spewed them out for me to look at, as if to let me figure out what to do with them.

“I was speeding?  That’s strange.  When you pointed at me I was being overtaken by three vehicles in a row.  Why didn’t you pull the overtaking vehicles over instead?”

“Those other vehicles have already been stopped up ahead.  I radioed them in.”  He pointed to his cell phone, which was clipped to his shirt near his shoulder.  It wasn’t a radio, but he grabbed it and tilted it toward his mouth to show me that he could magically use it as a radio.

“How do you know I was speeding?  I don’t see a radar gun.”

“My colleague at the bottom of the hill has the radar.  He radioed you in and I stopped you.”  We were in the middle of the desert, and he had no colleague at the bottom of the hill.  In a desert devoid of all life, you notice when there are other living things around.  Still, he wanted me to believe that we had been caught up in the middle of their sophisticated web of radios and radar guns.

I was visibly getting ticked off by his pack of lies.  After having been pulled over by numerous ill-intentioned, corrupt police officers every day since entering Peru, I no longer viewed them as being in a position of authority.  I found myself addressing them informally, as if dealing with a pest.  They were sloppy, inappropriate, and impossible to respect.

“You committed a serious infraction.  The ticket is 300 US dollars.”  He threw that out there and let it fester  for a while before continuing.  “What are you going to do about this problem?”

“I’m not going to do anything about this, because there isn’t a problem.  I wasn’t speeding, so there is no problem.”

The back and forth continued this way for 10 more minutes.  He repeatedly told me about the infraction, I denied all wrongdoing, and he asked what I was going to do to remedy the problem.  He was tireless.  Finally he got the hint that he wasn’t getting anywhere.

“Does she understand what we’re saying?” he asked, pointing with his chin toward Sheena.

Yo no entiendo nada!” Sheena said, clearly indicating that, yes, she did speak enough Spanish to understand what we were saying.

“Please get out of the vehicle.”  At this, the clown walked behind Nacho and waited for me.  I let out a stream of profanities and felt barely able to keep myself from throwing it in reverse and gunning it.  I cooled off, got out, and met him behind the van.

When I met him, he was no longer speaking formally, now choosing to speak to me in a quicker, familiar tone.  Sort of what you’d expect when being shaken down by a criminal.

“Look, just give me something material.  If you give me something – a gift – I will let you go.  What do you have in the van?”

“Tell you what,” I said, “I will give you a snack.  You can either have a granola bar or a banana.”  He had gone over the line, and I decided that I’d rather pay for a ticket than give this d-bag a bribe.  We hadn’t paid any bribes yet, and I wasn’t about to start.  I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I knowingly let this scumbag walk away with anything of value.

“A snack is not enough.  Give me your watch or your wedding ring.  Are these surfboards?  I would take a surfboard too.”

Who did this comedian think he was?  “I’m sorry hombre, but I’m not giving you anything.”  I decided to level with him – put all of my cards on the table.  “When we left home, my wife and I agreed that we’d never pay a bribe to a police officer.  Therefore, it’s impossible for me to give you anything.  If you’re hungry I can give you a snack, but I’m not giving you my watch or my wedding ring or my surfboard.  I’m happy to take the ticket.”

I knew I was putting him in an impossible situation.  To give up now would be shameful.  He would have lost to a gringo tourist.

“Just give me something material,” he repeated.  His tone had changed; he was feebly grabbing at the fading chance of a successful shakedown.

“Are we done?  I’d like to go now,” I told him.  My internal filter was full and I no longer cared about the outcome.  He stood there looking at my vehicular paperwork in his hands.  After a few seconds he folded them slowly and handed them back.

“You can go.”

And so there in the desert we left him, the uniformed Peruvian bandito.  The saddest of all of the desert clowns.

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Feb 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 15 Comments

Sweatpants Superhero

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The only reason Sheena let me publish this article was for the hope that it may help future travelers overcome…their issues.

Sitting in Nacho one evening in San Miguel de Allende, Sheena looked over at me with wanting eyes.  Almost immediately I knew it was a trap.

“Bradley?”  She said, sounding so sweet.  “Will you do me a really big favor?”  I knew I couldn’t say no.  When your spouse is ill, it doesn’t matter that you’ve retired to your easy chair for the night with a Steinbeck novel and a good beer.  No, it doesn’t matter if your whole body feels like Jell-O from your 15 minute hot shower, or that you’re already wearing your pajamas.  For the last few weeks Sheena had been feeling unwell, and after adjusting her diet had failed to deliver results, I knew she was ready to pull out the big guns.

“Does it involve going to the pharmacy?”


These things, like pulling teeth, are best done quickly before your body has a chance to object.  I grabbed my hooded sweatshirt and canvas moccasins, opened the sliding door, and headed out of the campground.  I was halfway to the pharmacy before I looked down and realized what I looked like; a black hooded sweatshirt, matching oversized black sweatpants, and canvas moccasins without socks.  Being that they were my pajamas, and hence never having been worn with shoes, I had never noticed the nerdy way in which the bottoms of my sweatpants didn’t quite reach my shoes.  Instead the leg holes swung like hula hoops around my white, sockless ankles.

I made my way, self-consciously through the passersby on their way to dinner on this, a Saturday night.  I’ve heard that the French secretly make fun of Americans for the subset of our population that thinks it’s okay to be seen in public wearing full sweatsuits. Shame on us for giving the French a reason to laugh at us. When I see this atrocity, even I turn my nose up in disgust.  And how many times have I posted snide comments on Twitter about Scottsdale women and their bad habit of wearing matching sweatsuits in public?  Apparently twice.

I made my way down our street, across Calle Zacateros, to the Pharmacy.  I hadn’t really thought through how I would approach the interaction, so it went down like a train wreck.  I stormed in the front door and found the young female pharmacist staring down at the counter in a kind of trance.

“I need an enema.”

She looked up at me, startled.  She didn’t say anything, her eyes gave away her uncertainty laced with fear.  She didn’t blink.  I wanted to turn and run, but I remembered Sheena’s poor little eyes looking up at me.  …a really big favor?

“Um…do you have any of them here…for sale?”

“No.”  She must have been mesmerized by my matching sweatsuit.  “They sell them at Farmacia Guadalajara.  It’s down the road.”  As I left I could almost feel her thumbs on her phone keypad, texting all of her friends.

The town’s main street was crowded with couples dressed to the nines heading out for dinner, old ladies crouched over going wherever it is that old ladies go, and assorted laborers making their way home after a hard day’s work.  Beyond all of these judging eyes, Farmacia Guadalajara.

I bobbed and weaved through the foot traffic, my matching sweatsuit grazing the odd hand or old lady cane.  Straight ahead, Dilshan stood in front of his restaurant talking to Greg, our waiter from the night before.  When he saw me, Dilshan stopped and stared, mouth slightly ajar.  As I approached, he looked at my matching suit in disbelief, and then recovered.

“Heeeeey…you’re back in town?”

“Yeah…uh…our car is still broken down.  I’m going to the pharmacy.  You know, Sheena’s feeling ill.”  For a minute I thought he’d suggest that we stop by for dinner again, but then I remembered he had a reputation to uphold.

“I hope it wasn’t from my food!”

I assured him that it wasn’t, and dismissed myself with a handshake.  I turned to Greg and shook his hand, only to realize that it wasn’t Greg at all, but a complete stranger.  It was that moment of horror that we’ve all felt.  Oh, you!? I didn’t mean that YOU were pregnant! Been there.

Once inside Farmacia Guadalajara, I made my way to the back where another young female pharmacist waited.  As she handed me the enema kit her eyes said feel better, while also saying you look like a clown. I picked up two packs of chocolate and headed to the checkout counter.  It’s just something you do when buying a product like this.  Chocolate seems to lessen the blow, as if to say, “yeah, I came to buy this chocolate, but these caught my eye, so I decided to casually buy them too.”

There must have been something magical in that chocolate, as Sheena was feeling like a million bucks the next day.  Silverio and Mario returned to our campsite and fixed Nacho once and for all with new rear driver’s side wheel bearings, and we were ready to rock.  One more night in San Miguel de Allende and we were poised to hit the road to Oaxaca, near where Nacho Libre was filmed.  A place where people are used to seeing Americans dressed up in funny suits.  What would the French think?  Oh, let’s stop kidding ourselves.  Since when have we ever cared what the French think?

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