Oct 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 14 Comments

Boobies and Jesus

The fishing boats didn’t go all that far from shore, perhaps a quarter of a mile, to a line where the sea turned from light to dark.  A shelf, most likely, where the sea floor dropped off to greater depths.  I sat on my knees on the paddleboard, paddling for all I was worth to get through the surf break without being toppled.  In my back pocket I carried the hand line I’d rigged up; to a locking carabiner I had tied a 120lb fishing line about 20 feet long.  To the end of the leader I tied a heavy duty hook, and on it I attached the only bait I could find in the van: a hunk of Swiss-style sausage.

I wasn’t interested in those hipster vegan fish.  No, I was interested in the man-eaters.  The kind of fish that require a 120lb fishing line and a locking carabiner; one that would be interested in eating manly nuggets of mystery meat stuffed into a piece of pig intestine.  Of course a fish like this, or a shark for that matter, could easily drown me and take my paddleboard with it.  For this reason I would attach the carabiner to a bungee cord, which would in turn be attached to my board.  I had my dive knife at the ready for the emergency cut-and-swim.

After passing through the surf break the water became more gentle.  I stood up and paddled out to sea, past the line where the water turned from light to dark.  I took out my hand line, unraveled the leader and dropped the bait into the water.  The line unraveled through my fingers until it was taut, and then I clipped the carabiner to my bungee cord and sat back to enjoy the warm Ecuadorian morning.  For a while I sat with my legs dangling off one side of the board, and then I laid down on my back and closed my eyes.  As I lay there on the board, the water gently rocking me with each passing wave, I considered the depth of the water below me.  I thought about the distance these waves had traveled, and the distance we, ourselves, had traveled.  Twenty feet below, the Swiss-style sausage dangled at the edge of an oceanic abyss, taunting the passing fish.  A quarter mile away, life in Canoa ticked by at a relaxed pace along dirt streets.  Ten thousand miles away life went on at home without us.  Sheena, unable to see me lying down, wondered if I’d been pulled under by a Great White.

After nearly an hour, I figured I should come back and let Sheena know I was still alive.  I rolled up my hand line, threw the sausage overboard, and headed back toward the surf.  As I approached the shore I was repeatedly pummeled by set waves, which, as usual, nearly drowned me.  By the time I reached shore my hand line had become unraveled and I was lucky not to have been killed by my supersized man-eater fishing hook.  Sheena, content that I was still alive, went back to reading her book in her lawn chair in the sand.

The following day, while descending the coastal road through a cloud forest toward Puerto Lopez, our brakes decided they’d had it.  I gently depressed the brake pedal coming around a curve, and it gently traveled all the way to the floor.  The ensuing panic-stomp did the trick, effectively jerking Nacho to  a slower speed.  I’d stumbled upon the temporary fix, allowing us to travel the rest of the way to our destination; every time I wanted to slow down, I had to do a panic-stomp on the brake pedal.  Failed brake master cylinder.  Damn.  More of that emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance would be required.

We pulled into Puerto Lopez and drove the main road along the water until we had left downtown, jerking to an abrupt panic stop before each speed bump.  A few hundred meters outside of town we found a nice spot to camp on the beach and panic-stopped into a serene location overlooking the bay.  We poured rum into two glasses and topped them up with Coke that had been chilling in the freezer, and then sunk back on the couch to listen to the waves.  Outside of our screen door the sailboats and fishing vessels bobbed in front of the lights from the bay while a cool sea breeze filled our small living room.

Having scored the best free beach front property in all of Ecuador, we weren’t in a hurry to move on.  The following morning we ignored our Vanagon maintenance woes and opted instead to go in search of boobies.  It was Sheena’s idea.  “Let’s just enjoy the beach,” I’d say.  “No!  I want to go to the island of boobies!”  She was relentless.  Of course we’re talking about birds here – the elusive Blue-Footed Booby.  La Isla de la Plata was only a 45 minute boat ride away and was said to be loaded with the little monsters.

At the port we found our fiberglass shell of a tour boat waiting, beached like a dead whale.  Our captain played it cool and asked all of the chaps from the group to come and help him get it free.  Twenty minutes and several strained backs later, we were putting Northwesterly.  When, halfway to the island, the engine failed, all I could do was smile.  I watched as the captain and his two helpers wrenched on it for a few minutes, and then switched to watching the panic grow in the other passengers’ eyes.  I was just happy to see someone else behind the wrench for a change.  We finally got on our way when I noticed another layer of ricketyness to our boat; one of the helpers’ jobs was to steer the boat by holding his foot on the outboard motor.  When the captain needed to turn, he would yell at the boy, who would push the motor a little with his bare foot.

“All right everybody, there are four hikes we can do,” our guide said.  We had disembarked and were gathered around the map of the hiking trails around the island.  “The map, you see, is backward.  You have to flip it like this.  The printer made it backwards.  There are four hikes, my fraings.”  For some reason Latin-American guides always say “my friends”, but pronounce it “my fraings”.  Every time I hear it I think of John McCain.

“This hike is very far away, so nobody likes it.”  He swirled his hand over the blue line.  “This one is very boring, you no see any boobies or frigates.  This one boobies, but only frigates flying.  This one is shortest, but has boobies and frigates, my fraings.”  It was clear that our guide wanted to do the shortest hike.  The island was no more than a half of a square mile, so no hike was really all that long.  “So my fraings, we will do the short boobie and frigate hike?”  We nodded.

The trail wound through a dry wash and up the side of a small mountain covered in palo santo trees, and punctuated by thickets of luffa bushes; yes, luffa as in “luffa sponge”.  Luffa sponges grow on bushes inside of huge spiky seeds.

“These are luffa sponges, my fraings.  They make your face so soft, my fraings.”  Our guide mimed washing his face with one of the sponges.

Throughout the hike we dodged blue-footed boobies and red-breasted frigates perched in the trail and all over the surrounding cliffs and trees.  I kept myself entertained by proclaiming “Look! Red-breasted frigate!” using my best nerdy birder lisp every time I saw one.  I’m 29, but I’m not above acting like a 12 year old.  Just ask Sheena.

Back on the boat it was time to head back to the mainland, but not before partaking of the second part of our tour: snorkeling at the island.

“My fraings,” our guide announced, “It is time for snorkeling.”  He glanced over his shoulder at the water and the white sandy beach.  “You will have one hour to snorkel.  There are many fishes and corals to see. ”  We all nodded in anticipation.  “But as you can see the water is very cold.  It may make you sick from the cold.  The wind is also blowing.  So you will not have any fun.  Maybe today is not the day for snorkeling.  Does anyone want to snorkel?”  We peered around at the group, now completely turned off by the idea of snorkeling, and fearful for their health.  Not wanting to be the only ones swimming in the arctic cold water with the deadly wind making us sick, we kept quiet as the boat sputtered to life and stammered out to sea.

On the way back to Puerto Lopez our boat ran out of gas.  Again we were stuck, the other passengers fretted, and I couldn’t wipe the ridiculous smile off of my face.  After replacing your own transmission on a high mountain Colombian farm, there’s nothing more satisfying than watching it happen to someone else.  It’s like all of a sudden waking up and realizing that you’re not alone in the world.

Eventually the helpers unearthed an extra fuel bottle from the depths of the boat’s bilge, and we were on our way.  A short time later, Sheena let out a joyous squeal and all at once I knew we’d be stopping again.  Next to our boat a whale breached, and then her two calves followed.  We spent a half an hour circling the enormous animals as they repeatedly surfaced and jumped around.  I imagined one of them biting my Swiss-style sausage link and taking me into the depths of the ocean while I fidgeted for my dive knife.  I really dodged a bullet there.

The following morning it was time to get down to business.  By the glow of Nacho’s dome light after our boat trip I had removed our brake master cylinder.  I now carried it in my sweatshirt pocket as I made my way at 6:00 in the morning toward the Puerto Lopez bus station.  I would go to Guayaquil, a 5 hour trip, and not come back until I found a replacement.  By 7:00 I had found the right bus and was relaxing my way Southward.  Someone else drove, for a change.

As the bus passed through grasslands and canyons I listened to Radiolab and This American Life on my iPod.  Ira Glass dug deep to find out what happened during the massacre at Dos Erres, Guatemala, and I thought about how long ago we had driven through that region.  It seemed like an eternity.  Being able to sit there and stare out the window while being entertained was a welcome luxury.  By now the uncertainty of when and how our van would be fixed didn’t concern me.  We’d been through this before, and everything would certainly work out.  How could I complain, after all, after listening to what happened at Dos Erres?

When the bus reached Guayaquil I grabbed a sandwich and walked out to the taxis.  I hopped in one and directed him to a VW parts importer.  When we reached the place I stepped out and passed my old master cylinder through the barred service window to the parts guy.  He disappeared for a minute and emerged holding the exact part I needed.  I paid him, thumbed another taxi back to the bus station, and hopped on the next bus for Puerto Lopez.  The whole day was all very non-Latin-American in its efficiency and in the way everything worked on the first try.  I suppose that after you’ve traveled across continents and smuggled really heavy car parts across international borders to fix very difficult mechanical problems, everything else just seems easy.

On the bus ride home I sat in the bulkhead seat next to a pleasant Ecuadorian woman with a lot of grocery bags.  On the bulkhead there was a large picture of Jesus superimposed over a backdrop of a serene Swiss mountain lake.  Jesus was made in the image of a Latin-American boy, but in an effort to make him look as innocent and tranquil as possible, he had turned out looking more like a prebubescent Latin-American girl wearing a satin bed sheet.  He certainly looked nothing like the Middle-Eastern man that he really was.  I find it curious that every Christian society does this same kind of Jesus stylization.  I stared at this innocent-looking bed sheet-wearing prebubescent Latin-American girl for five hours, while listening to episodes of Fresh Air on my iPod.

As the sun went down and the bus descended the same road where our brakes had failed, Terri Gross interviewed Maurice Sendak, the author of Where the Wild Things Are.  Maurice spoke about his impending death and the sadness he felt at having had to watch his friends pass away, while at the same time looking positively on the times he had.

“There’s something that I’m finding out as I’m aging – that I am in love with the world.  And I look right now as we speak together, out the window of my studio, and I see my trees – my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old, and … I can see how beautiful they are.  I can take time to see how beautiful they are … It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music … Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

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Oct 2012

Blog, South America


Plank the Line

Crossing into Ecuador from Colombia marked the first time in three months that we had driven across an international border under our own power.  The previous night we’d driven twelve hours, our long push culminating at a Texaco station high in the mountains where we set up camp.  Shortly after our arrival all four of our tires were promptly marked by a band of rogue dogs, as happens every time we stop.

Having driven the last four hours at night, I hadn’t seen a rock in the road and hit it at around 45 miles per hour.  The rock flung up and hit the propane hose that feeds our stove, creating a gash that caused most of our propane to leak out.  I noticed the smell as we settled down for bed, and closed the valve so as to retain what little propane was left, and to avoid waking up dead.  One more thing to fix.

The following morning, after a short visit to a church built over a gorge where a crazy person claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary, we crossed into Ecuador to find the Pan-American a beautifully manicured four lane highway.  We continued South to the town of Otavalo, and after a couple of uninspiring days there we were ready to say goodbye to the Northern Hemisphere.

By early afternoon we had arrived at the equator.  We found a restaurant near the equatorial line, where we were welcomed by a bunch of cardboard cutouts of Dave Zimmern, the host of some American strange foods show.  He had apparently stopped here and eaten a guinea pig, as evidenced by the myriad photographs, quotes, and faded cardboard cutouts of him holding said guinea pig.  We spied several guinea pigs impaled on sticks over a fire, so we inquired.  In a country where lunch rarely costs more than $2, we regretfully turned down the $20 price tag and instead ate what the locals were eating.  The proprietor seemed extremely dismayed that we were unwilling to purchase one of her exorbitantly priced rodents.  We paid the $2 for our lunch and made our way to the equator.

The equator, for all its fame and reputation, was about as interesting as a line painted on the ground.  We checked it with our GPS and found it to be several feet from the real equator.  It wasn’t merely disappointing in the way that your children don’t like The Rolling Stones as much as you do.  No, it was really disappointing.  Like the kind of disappointment you feel when your children quit their perfectly adequate jobs to go live in a van.  This fact didn’t stop us from doing silly poses and, most impressively, planking the illegitimate equator.

A few small issues had popped up with Nacho since leaving Susacón, so we decided to spend a couple of days taking care of them in Quito; one of our inner tie rod ends had developed some slop, we now had a bad propane line, and we found – to my utter dismay and disbelief – that our new transmission had come with a leaky drive flange oil seal.  As we drove, the bottom of our engine and transmission were being covered by a continuous drip of gear oil, which mixed with dust to create a nice oily sludge.  Fortunately I’d picked up a couple of new drive flange oil seals in Panama on a whim, so I planned to replace the leaky one and be on our way.

We drove to Quito and found an enclosed dirt parking lot in the middle of downtown where we could camp for about $3 per night.  Within walking distance were a whole gaggle of restaurants serving delicious – and virtually free – meals.  Middle Eastern kebabs could be had for $1.50.  Indian curry with naan and rice was $4.  Our favorite lunch place turned out to be a nice Italian restaurant with crisp white table cloths and well-dressed waiters.  Main dishes came from the wood-fired oven in the center of the room.  The standard lunch included fresh squeezed juice, an appetizer, a large bowl of soup, a well-stocked salad bar, a main course, and a dessert – all for $3.  Ecuador, with its $1.50/gallon gas and dirt cheap delicious food, was going to be a welcome relief to our budget.

I started off by repairing our propane line.  As expected, none of the hardware stores carried the fitting I needed, so I improvised using things I had in the van.  I ended up fixing it MacGyver style with a bolt and some plumber’s tape.  Next it was time to fix the transmission leak.  I drained the gear oil, cut away the safety wire and removed the CV joint – laughing to myself that I had ever thought I’d be done messing with CV joints – and then removed the clips and washers that held the drive flange in.  Upon removing the drive flange it was obvious that the oil seal had been pressed in crooked when it was rebuilt.  I compared my new seals with the crooked one and discovered that the shop in Panama had sold me the wrong seals.  What? Another inept worker in the Latin-American car repair industry?  Shocking!

I was unable to remove the seal without destroying it, and nothing I tried would cause it to straighten out.  I cursed my luck and reassembled everything.  I would have to deal with the leak, and resign myself to continually checking the oil level.  It just never gets any easier!

The next day I went to several VW parts houses and found that nobody carried a tie rod for Nacho.  One would have to be ordered from Guayaquil, which would take two days.  It made me nervous because the parts guy never asked me what year Nacho was before placing the order over the phone, but he assured me it was the correct one.  I gave it a 5% chance.  In the meantime, Sheena and I decided to escape from civilization for a while, and make the trip South to go camping and hiking at Cotopaxi volcano while we waited.  We’d just drive carefully so our front wheel assembly wouldn’t come apart.

Getting to Cotopaxi involved traveling over several mountains at or around 14,000 feet.  At this elevation, Nacho operates at about 30% power since the fuel doesn’t have enough oxygen to achieve complete combustion.  We repeatedly coasted down long stretches of freeway, and then chugged up long stretches in first gear.  Eventually we arrived at the dirt road turnoff for Cotopaxi, which was followed by many miles of dirt road.  Finally we arrived to our campsite at the base of the mountain; the wind whipped through our the nearly-frozen tundra known as our camp, while the temperature plunged toward freezing.  Our camp was at a frosty 15,000 feet in the shadow of the even frostier 20,000 foot volcano.

The following day we donned our hiking gear and set off across the treeless landscape toward the volcano.  Being above the tree line allowed us to hike cross-country straight up the side of the peak.  We had grandiose plans of reaching the snow line and exploring the edge of the glacier than clung to the side of the mountain, but by mid-afternoon we had only climbed a little better than half way to the snow line.

We regretfully turned around and ran down the side of the volcano in order to make it back to camp before dark.  We crawled into Nacho just as the sun crested the horizon, where we cooked dinner and made tea, raising the inside temperature to 65 degrees while outside it plunged below freezing.  Sure they have mechanical problems, but you still can’t beat a Vanagon for overland travel.

We opted to spend one more day at Cotopaxi, choosing this time to hike in the other direction.  In a failed attempt to locate the trail on our map, we ended up hiking all day along an abandoned road bed through the mountains.  This marked the second straight day of not coming across another human here in the beautiful Andes.  Another comfortable night in Nacho ensued, and then we were off to collect our tie rod.

In Quito we found parking in a neighborhood close to the VW shop.  I crawled under the van with two wrenches and a tie rod puller; yes, I actually have a tie rod puller.  Five minutes later we were walking down the street with a badly worn tie rod in one hand, and virtually no chance of finding the right part in the other.  As we entered the parts house, the owner reached down and grabbed the part, holding it up with a big grin on his face.  I held it up to the bad tie rod and, to my disbelief, found it to be the correct part.  I happily paid him and walked back to Nacho, where I crawled underneath and easily installed the new part while fútbol moms drove by and pedestrians stared.

Having had our fill of Quito, we fired up our safer and more reliable Nacho and headed West.  We were ready for some surf and sun, so we bid farewell to the mountains with a smile on our faces and a drip on our transmission.

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Sep 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 19 Comments

Nachoshank Redemption

“What are these car parts?”  I had been sitting at the DIAN office for hours as Alicia tirelessly entered information about my illegally smuggled goods into her computer.  One should expect nothing less from a Colombian version of the IRS.  Sheena still sat outside on a concrete island in between two lanes of traffic, studiously reading her e-book.

“In the one bag I have a transmission.  The other suitcase has wheel bearings, nothing more.”  I was lying, but only because I didn’t think it mattered.  It probably made no difference to Alicia, on whom the difference between a hub, a stub axle, a catalytic converter and a wheel bearing would be lost anyway.

“And what is the value?”  I just wanted to get out of there, so I made something up.  “The transmission is about $700, and the wheel bearings are $85.”  It was my second mistake, because at the time I didn’t know that I would have to back it up with official proof.  I was digging myself a deep hole.  After a few hours of paperwork and computer entries, all I had to do was go to the Cargo Port and pay my import taxes.

“Just tell them that the parts are elementos de arte oficio,” a random stranger told me as I left the building.  “Otherwise you’ll have to pay high taxes. ”  I told him I didn’t understand.  “You’re only allowed to enter the country with personal items.  If you’re a tennis player and you enter with a tennis racket, this is an elemento de arte oficio.  It’s something that you use to perform your hobby.  It’s a personal item.  Just tell them you’re a mechanic and these things are for you to perform your hobby.  They’re like your tennis racket.”

At the cargo port, I was told to find an agent, give them my Customs papers, and pay the associated taxes.  According to Alicia, I should be suckling the sweet milk of Freedom’s teat by day’s end.  I promptly found a customs agent, handed him my papers, and told him I was there to settle my debt.  “It should be quick,” I said, “these are elementos de arte oficio.”  He mustered a contrite giggle. “Sorry, I don’t think so,” he said.  So much for that idea.  And not only was he sorry about my lame attempt to sidestep the laws of The Man, but furthermore I was not even allowed to handle payment of my own import taxes.  I would have to employ the services of a Customs Agent, or find someone who lived in Colombia with a commercial license to act as a Customs Agent.  Importing my contraband-ridden suitcases basically involved the same process as importing our van.

Day one came to an end and our transmission was still on lockdown in the damned DIAN office at the airport.  I regretted not pepper spraying the Customs Agent and making a run for the door when I had the chance.  That evening I put out the word on our Facebook page that we needed help, and a few hours later we were in luck.  The coworker of a friend of one of our Facebook followers would meet us the following morning and accompany us to the Cargo Port to pay our simple fee.  DIAN had gone too far this time – we had called upon a third degree of separation for help.

Omar met us in front of our house at 9AM where we hailed a really expensive cab.  Upon arriving at the Cargo Port, we were told that we must use a special software program to fill out more paperwork before we could pay the import tax.  They had a computer with the software that we could use, but no user manual.  The efforts of Omar, a professional importer, and me, a professional software designer, were useless against the confusing and non-user-friendly DIAN software.  Recognizing our conundrum, we opted to visit a Customs Agent in Bogotá to see if they could help.  Another expensive taxi ride ensued, and we soon found ourselves sitting in the office of a Customs Agent.  The prognosis?  In three days we could have our illegal contraband, and it would only cost us $180 on top of the import fees.  We declined the nice agent’s offer and took another expensive taxi ride back to the Cargo Port, where we withered away the rest of the day.  On our way out of the building on our way to hail another expensive taxi, we found a mysterious fortune-teller type named “Miss Ofelia” who could meet us in an internet café the next day and fill out our paperwork for a fee of $90.

The next morning Omar took another day off of work and met us at the internet café.  I was armed with fake receipts for my transmission and “wheel bearings”, reflecting the exact values I had reported to Customs.  Miss Ofelia clicked away on the computer for a couple of hours, eventually producing separate sets of paperwork for each illegal item I was importing.  All I had to do was bring them to the Customs Agent to pay my taxes.  Of course, it couldn’t be so easy.  When I presented the papers to the Customs Agent I was told I could only pay my taxes at the bank, and that I should bring my receipt back to him get another official receipt with a stamp on it.  Only then could I bring that receipt to DIAN where more paperwork could be done.

I went to the bank and paid my import taxes – another $200 – but I couldn’t get a receipt because the computer system was down.  After a few hours the system returned, I got my receipt, and we headed to the DIAN office at the airport.  Now it was time for Alicia to actually inspect my bags to be sure everything was as I said it should be.  Together we inspected the transmission.  She looked at it cluelessly as I described what it did and ensured her that it was brand new and not used.  Next it was time to inspect my pack of lies – suitcase #2.  When I opened it, Alicia looked so disgusted I thought she would lurch all over my stuff.  She looked at the pile of rusty parts and the timing light that looked like a gun.  “Those parts are all used.  It’s illegal to import used car parts.  And what is that gun?”  I tried to explain how the hubs and stub axles were somehow actually wheel bearings.  I placed a stub axle into one of the hubs and spun it, “See? It spins, so it’s a wheel bearing.”  I next tried to explain that the catalytic converter didn’t really count, and that I’d forgotten about the timing gun.  After a few minutes of my backpedaling she finally took pity on me.

“I didn’t see anything,” she said.  “Just wrap up those parts so I can’t see them.  I never saw anything.”  Next, she grabbed the catalytic converter and handed it to me.  “Put this in your bag.  It was never in the suitcase at all.  I never saw it.  Also, take this gun, throw away the packaging, and put it in your bag. ”  Somehow rules were being bent in our favor.  We had out-patienced the Colombian IRS!  I walked out of the quarantine room with a backpack full of undocumented contraband, watched Alicia type some more information into the computer, and then I was handed a piece of official-looking paper.

“You’re free to go,” she said.  All at once the taste of freedom came rushing back and I remembered what liberation felt like.  I grabbed my suitcases and wheeled them out the back door into the overcast, chilly air of Bogotá, handing my official papers to the police guard at the door.  All said, including airline baggage fees, import taxes, paperwork fees, and three days of taxi rides, it had cost us $721 to get our transmission and other assorted parts from the USA to Colombia.

After a day-long car trip from Bogotá to Susacón with Hernando and Constanza, it was time to get back to work.  We reacquainted ourselves with our little cabin and took a day to relax.  We stocked up on firewood and filet mignon for the grill – we weren’t here to rough it, after all – and prepared ourselves for the work ahead.

As a warm up for installing the transmission, I decided to start off by replacing our rear hub housings, stub axles, and wheel bearings.  We’d had two wheel bearing failures in close succession in Mexico and Guatemala, and I wanted to be sure that those were behind us.  I figured the most likely cause for the second failure was a bad installation by the Mexican mechanic, but I wanted to be sure.  I installed the salvaged hub housings and stub axles from my smuggled inventory, and replaced the wheel bearings for good measure.

Next, I tackled a few other minor jobs around the van.  In many cases I was taking preventative steps to solidify what I thought were weak spots to avoid future problems, and in some cases I fixed problems that actually needed fixing.

Our CV joints have had a history of problems, starting long before we left on our trip.  In Costa Rica one of our axles separated from the stub axle when all of the CV bolts simultaneously came loose, and recently the CVs had started to intermittently click – a sign that they were wearing out.  To avoid more problems, I rotated the axles from side to side to give the CV bearings a new surface to wear on, replaced a couple of worn CV boots, and safety wired all of the bolts together so that it would be impossible for them to come loose again.

The wire for our oil pressure warning light has been frayed for some time, after having been badly burned in a confrontation with an exhaust pipe.  I cut a new strand of wire and replaced it, noting in the process that the wire had been much worse than I’d originally thought.

In the interest of simplification, I decided to remove our air conditioner along with its 12x25x1 air filters.  I’d never actually hooked it up, and it simply served to be in the way of me accessing the left side of the engine.  It was the air conditioner’s fault that I hadn’t seen the frayed oil pressure light, after all.  Once I got it all out on the ground I felt a lot better, and in the process Nacho lost about 50 pounds.

Our front brakes had started causing us problems in Costa Rica when the pistons froze while leaving the trout farm.  I took this opportunity to give our front brakes a makeover; I rebuilt the calipers, replaced the piston seals and dust boots, replaced all of the brake hardware and springs, and installed a fresh set of braided stainless steel brake hoses.  The fact that our rotors had been warped in the Costa Rica incident would be hardly noticeable through the awesome performance of our nearly new brakes.

Since I was doing the front brakes, I figured I might as well do the rear while I was at it.  I found that one of my rear wheel bearing seals had allowed grease to escape and coat one of the rear brake shoes, so I thoroughly cleaned both shoes, sanded them, and cleaned up the brake drums.  To my dismay, but not disbelief, I found that the deranged mechanic of Susacón had sabotaged my driver’s side rear brake while he was in the process of sabotaging my transmission.  When I removed the rear brake drum on that side, I had found that he hadn’t bothered to tighten the bolts that hold the brake system to the hub housing.  And while he was at it, he stole both of my brake shoe return springs.  Hernando volunteered to go over to his shop to get them back, but the maniac denied everything.  Instead, I was forced to manufacture new return springs using things we found on or near the farm.  I knew that watching MacGyver would pay off some day.

Since I was in a fix-it mood, I decided to install an override for our automatic battery separator.  Since leaving home, I had a near-constant feeling of discontent with the battery separator that would automatically connect or disconnect our starting and house batteries depending on their respective voltages.  I decided that it would better if I could override its hard-coded decisions, so I installed a manual battery separation switch next to our radio.

Finally I had procrastinated enough and it was time to install our new transmission.  Since trying to borrow a jack from the local mechanic had backfired, I decided to try it without a proper jack.  I rigged up a series of ratchet straps instead, which would allow me to hoist the transmission into place.  I replaced the pilot bearing, clutch, and pressure plate, and then hoisted the transmission.  The ratchet straps turned out to be less than ideal for the job, so I had to position myself under the tranny and basically hump it into place using my pelvis.  It was the most grotesque thing I ever did to a tranny.

In the last few weeks before the transmission failure, the starter had occasionally ignored my pleas to start.  I took the initiative to replace it as well before it left us stranded.  With everything in place I turned the key and pumped life into Nacho for the first time in six weeks.  Everything went great until I depressed the clutch and tried to shift.  From Nacho’s belly the sound of crunching metal emanated.  Something was totally whack with the transmission.  After much debate and many phone calls I decided to remove the transmission again to see if all was well within the bell housing.  This time I located a proper jack to help me along.

After removing the transmission I found that everything was as it should be in the bell housing, although I noticed that the bracket that stabilizes the clutch slave cylinder was, and always had been missing.  At this realization I sprung into action and employed my blacksmithing skills to create a new bracket out of a piece of steel I found in the barn.  I also noticed that the reason for the metal grinding was an incorrectly installed clutch throwout arm.  I fixed the arm and got everything ready to reinstall.

With the jack, the installation went much more smoothly the second time.  I jacked that puppy into place, reattached the CV joints and safety wired them in place, and then bolted all of the other associated doo-dads in place.  I re-bled the clutch one more time for good measure and fired Nacho up.  This time when I changed gears I heard nothing but Nacho’s deep purr.

Later on I did a full tune up; new fuel filter, spark plugs and wires, new air filter, distributor rotor, and a new idle stabilizer.  I finished it all off by adjusting the timing to add a few extra hamster wheels to Nacho’s total power, and then took it for a test drive.  Cruising the streets of Susacón filled me with a sense of liberation akin to that of Timothy Robbins after he’d crept through the sewers and stumbled into the forest in Shawshank Redemption.  On my way back to the farm I passed the deranged mechanic of Susacón walking on the sidewalk.  Our eyes connected for a split second and it felt like I was staring into the devil’s soul.  When I got home, Sheena and I celebrated with a barbeque and some Club Colombia beer.

The following morning we Ioaded Nacho and said goodbye to Luis and Constanza.  In a display of true Colombian hospitality, they told us we could stay in their home in Bogotá for as long as we wanted as a liberation gift.  We locked up the cabin, pointed Nacho’s big, dumb, blunt nose out of the farm gate, and slowly pulled out onto the winding mountain road toward Bogotá.  Susacón, it’s been lovely.  Maybe one day we’ll ,meet again.

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Sep 2012
DISCUSSION 22 Comments

Gun-Toting Contraband Smuggler Man

Although we were having all kinds of fun with family reunions, seeing our friends, eating stuff, and drinking alcoholic beverages, it had come down to game time.  We were home for a reason, and we couldn’t avoid it any longer.  We needed to pick up a transmission, put it in a suitcase, check it onto a plane, and somehow get it through Customs in Colombia without being caught.  Since being home, we had also managed to acquire an eighth grade girl’s weight in other car parts, fishing equipment, clothing, and more car parts.  We knew it would require a great deal of savvy and luck to pull it off, so we trained for it in the only way we knew how; we played horseshoes to hone our precision, and we rode our bikes to build our endurance.  We saw a sign that said “purchase AK47 rifles” and right next to that was another that told us that guns were the source of freedom, which we were going to need, so we got some guns and shot some little clay disks.  We were willing to try anything.

Our first step was to swing by AZ Transaxle and pick up the transmission.  I was pleased to see how shiny and clean it looked; this would play a key role in my ability to lie my way through Customs in the event that I was caught trying to smuggle a used transmission into Colombia.  As you may recall, smuggling such things into Colombia is illegal.

Next, we had to pack it up.  We needed to make it as small as possible so as to fly under the radar of the Colombian Customs agents, and we needed it to be light.  The maximum weight allowed for a checked bag, regardless of how many crisp Benjamins you flash in front of the ticket agent’s face, is 100 pounds.  I decided to remove the bell housing to make it sleek like supermodel, and then build a slim wooden box in its place to protect the input shaft.  With any luck the box would survive a fall from the airplane’s cargo door.  Just to be sure, I wrapped the thing in a whole bunch of bubble wrap.  We didn’t want to sneak through Customs only to discover that we had a trashed transmission again, so we used wood and plastic.  Nature and science.

My original idea had been to try and carry the transmission in my carry-on bag.  Everyone said I was crazy, but it made good sense to me.  First of all, it would save us $350 in overweight baggage fees.  I mean seriously, who has ever had to weigh their carry-on?  All I would have to do is put the transmission in a backpack, and then pretend that the backpack weighed less than 20 pounds so that no official types would think anything was fishy.  Then, I would have to ensure that I could lift the transmission over my head and place it in the overhead compartment, while not leading on that it weighed more than 20 pounds.  And lastly, I would have to hope that the overhead compartment didn’t come crashing down, killing someone’s child.  That would make all of my sneaky heavy lifting effort null and void.  In the end I decided against it, but only for the children.

Finally the day had come.  Sheena went on her merry way to United Airlines carrying two checked bags.  In those bags were many illicit objects, including a transmission bell housing, a new starter, some new LED interior puck lights, new spark plug wires, a clutch master and slave cylinder, a new flyfishing rod, a spare alternator regulator, some new brake lines, and a few other odds and ends.  Her bags were, in short, Customs lightning rods.

In my bags, things were looking no better.  I went off to the Aeromexico counter carrying a transmission, two salvaged rear hub housings made of rusty cast iron, a slightly modified and very rusty catalytic converter, two stub axles, a fancy air filter, a timing light that looked just like a gun, and some corrosive/explosive fluids.  All very used, and all very illegal.  Well, the fluids weren’t used, but they were surely illegal.  My bag containing the transmission ended up weighing 94.5 pounds.  Just under the legal limit.  When the nice Aeromexico ticket agent weighed my bag, she looked rather shocked.  She told me, pity in her eyes, that I owed her $350.  I nicely asked her in her native tongue if she would give me another 20 pounds for free, and she instantly obliged, knocking $100 off of my fee.  Things were going great so far!  Good thing we shot those guns!

The trip to Colombia went off uneventfully.  My stopover in Hermosillo was too short to dart out to the taco stand like last time, but I did manage to gorge myself on tacos on my second stopover in Mexico City.  Poor Sheena ate at an American chain restaurant in Houston, and nothing more.

When I stepped off the plane in Bogota, Sheena was waiting for me at baggage claim.  She already had her bags full of illegal contraband, and waited patiently while I recovered mine.  I found a note on my bag saying that US Customs had seized something from my bag.  I unzipped it in a panic, and quickly found that they had only stolen my brake fluid and the cleaning agent for my new washable K&N air filter.  I zipped it back up, swallowed hard, and Sheena and I coolly walked toward the exit.

“Don’t worry, Sheena,” I said, “I shot a gun before we left.  We will have freedom.”

Everything was going great and soon enough we could see the exit doors; the rays of light streamed through the plate glass like bullets from a freedom gun.  As we approached the Customs agents, a mere 50 feet from the exit doors, I whispered for Sheena to look straight ahead and be cool.  I casually checked my watch, sighed, and pretended to see someone I knew outside.  This gave me a reason not to make eye contact with the agents.  And then, all at once, we were accosted.  An agent stepped in front of us and pointed to the x-ray machine.  His gaze said it all; “I know you’re smugglers, you sons of bitches!”

We pretended it was no big deal, and walked to the x-ray machine with our 244.5 pounds of illegal imports.  Sheena put her bags on the conveyor first, and I helped her stand them on their sides in just such a way, so that the bell housing would be less obvious, and the starter would look less like a bomb.  I hefted my transmission onto the belt next, followed by my hubs, axles, catalytic converter, and gun-like timing light.  I stared at the agent behind the computer, trying to avert her gaze from the screen using extra sensory perception.

Look away … look away … look away … look-

“We have something here! We have something here!”  She looked around, hand in the air, calling for backup.  Sheena and I looked at each other; we had seen Broke Down Castle, and knew that these situations usually ended up with the smugglers spending the rest of their lives in an all-women’s Thai jail.  The agent spun the screen around so I could see it.  Sheena’s bags were still in view, but she was pointing at mine.

“What is this!?” She seemed angry, pointing directly at the transmission.  I tried to think of something quickly that would make her believe that indeed this was not a car part.  Anything but a car part.  If she knew it was a car part, it would be all over.  Our illusion of freedom would disintegrate like the crumbling walls of an all-women’s Thai jail.

“Uh…it’s a car part.”  Doh!  “It’s … um … it’s a transmission for a car.”  Doh!  Doh!

She moved the conveyor, burping Sheena’s illegal contraband out the end.  “These are car parts TOO!”, she said, pointing at my next bag containing a whole gaggle of car parts.  As the woman continued to call for backup, I gave Sheena the nod.  She quickly snatched her bags and speed walked out the door and into the street.  It had only been a few seconds, but I could no longer remember what freedom tasted like.  Whoever made that gun sign was a liar and a moron.

A woman named Alicia, someone I would come to know all too well over the course of my Customs incarceration, led me across the linoleum floor to the DIAN office.  “Everyone fears the DIAN,” Constanza would later tell us.  “They are the IRS of Colombia.  Everybody must pay the DIAN.”

I sat in an uncomfortable chair against the wall while I watched a young man being humiliated by a DIAN agent as he pulled illegal electric motors from his suitcase.  “They are for my father’s business,” he said.  “Your father can’t save you! You’re in DIAN now, son!”  They didn’t say that, but we all knew it was true.  I waited my turn, what seemed like hours.  I would have to get used to waiting, as I was now a common criminal in the Colombian DIAN justice system.  Just another scumbag smuggler, trying to outsmart The Man.

“Car part smuggler? DIAN will deal with you now.”

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Aug 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 30 Comments

The Fourth Option

In my fourth year of engineering school I decided to do an independent study project.  This meant I would choose a problem, and then engineer a solution to it while reporting my progress to my academic advisor.  Initially I felt inclined to improve the aerodynamics of a rotating bicycle wheel; a problem that keeps us all awake at night, I’m sure.  At the last minute, my advisor mentioned that an off-grid ranch near Flagstaff wanted to switch their power supply from a diesel generator to a hybrid of solar and wind power.  They just needed a sucker to design the system for them.  Wait a minute, I was a sucker, I thought.  This would be perfect for me!  I chose the ranch project and walked out of my advisor’s office with a stack of books.

I will wave my arm and say that many things happened, and at the end of the semester I had overengineered the process in a big way.  In an effort to optimize everything, I had written a full library of computer code to do everything from product performance simulation, to weather prediction and statistical analysis.  My advisor told me I should commercialize what I had done.

I will wave my arm again and say that many things happened and my social life suffered.  A few years and several programming languages later, I had started a business and commercialized my software.  A short while later my company was acquired, I quit my day job, and overnight I went from being a designer of medical products to being a renewable energy software engineer.

So what’s the point, and why am I not talking about our trip?  Because I want to demonstrate that sometimes things happen in our lives that seem trivial, but they can alter our path in unexpected ways.  This is what happened the day Nacho’s transmission went belly up three miles from the small Colombian mountain village of Susacón.

By our original plan we should have been sitting around a campfire with our friends in Villa de Leiva, laughing at things so funny that expensive cognac  would be shooting from our noses while watching a beautiful sunset and looking so chic in our turtleneck sweaters.  Instead we rescued Nacho from the grasp of a demented maniac, retreated to the safety of a gated farm, and spent the first night teetering on the ragged edge of a nervous breakdown.  In Guatemala we were stranded for a week and it was devastating.  A couple of fellow Volkswagen travelers suffered a transmission failure in Honduras and it took nearly 70 days to get back on the road.  By all estimations we were in for a hellish time.

For starters, there are a few things to know about Colombia, Vanagons, and why breaking down in the latter while visiting the former is a bad thing.  The first thing to know is that there are more unicorns in Colombia than Vanagons.  In a place where Vanagon sightings make tabloid news, finding parts for our transmission would be virtually impossible.  Next, the Colombian government recently passed a law prohibiting the importation of used car parts.  New parts can be imported, but they are taxed as high as 50% of their retail value.  yes, even if you’re leaving the country with said parts in a matter of days.  The last thing to know is that new Vanagon transmissions don’t exist.  They haven’t been produced in many, many moons, and so the only way forward is to buy rebuilt ones.  When I say “rebuilt”, you should hear “used”.

After a couple of evenings we had identified three options for getting ourselves out of this mess.


Option #1: Bring our failed transmission to an inept local mechanic to be rebuilt, locally, and ineptly

When we got back to the farm and got settled in, I took a closer look at our transmission to see what had happened.  The reason we stopped moving forward was immediately apparent.  The input shaft, which connects the engine to the transmission, connects to the transmission’s gears by a grooved metal sleeve, held in place by a circlip and a threaded rod.  Somehow, the circlip had come off, the threaded rod backed out, and the sleeve slipped out of the way.  With nothing holding the input shaft in line, it had gone all willy nilly.  This willy nillyness caused the input shaft to melt the main transmission oil seal and destroy the oil slinger.  At this point, Nacho’s mojo leaked out and he voided his bowels, as you may recall.

After removing the bell housing from the transmission, I noticed that the ring and pinion gears were missing a couple of teeth, and the ones that remained intact were so pitted and cracked that it made a meth addict seem like a Colgate poster girl.  To go the local rebuild route, they would have to import a new ring and pinion, input shaft, oil slinger, seal, and whatever else might have been wrong inside of the gear cluster.  By my estimation, this would take a month and would cost at least as much as a new transmission stateside.  Given the ineptness of the local mechanics, they would probably make all new parts out of beer cans and solder, and our transmission would fail again within a few hundred miles.

Option #2: Buy a rebuilt transmission in the USA, ship it to Colombia on a cargo plane

You will recall that ordering a rebuilt transmission and having it sent to Colombia is illegal.  No problem, those are the rules, and rules are made to be bent.  We would just buy the transmission from a rebuilder who could be coerced into lying on our receipt to say it was new.  What are the chances a customs agent would be able to tell the difference?  We found that Aeromexico had cargo planes going from LAX to Bogota, and could carry our transmission for the low cost of $330 plus import taxes.  We would just have to figure out how to get it to LAX, and bingo bango.

Almost bingo bango.  Turns out you can’t just go into the cargo port and pay your import taxes.  That would be too easy.  Instead you have to hire a professional customs broker to do the process for you.  After calling around, I found that customs brokers only deal with freight forwarding companies, and not individuals such as myself.  I considered incorporating my own Colombian customs brokerage for the occasion, but it seemed like a wildly inefficient idea. (Source: https://kryptoszene.de/aktien-kaufen/biotech-aktien/)

Option #3: Buy a rebuilt transmission from the USA and put it on a drug lord’s motor boat

I’m being a little hyperbolic here, but the third option is a little on the shady side.  We were told about a freight forwarder in Miami that could export used car parts to Colombia.  I don’t know how, and I didn’t ask.  All I would have to do is buy a rebuilt transmission and have it trucked to this company in Miami.  They would then put it on a ship, which would take it to Colombia’s North coast.  At this point it would go through customs, and would be placed on another truck that would take it to Bogota, where I would pick it up and bring it to Susacón on a bus.  By my estimation this would take about a month, and would cost somewhere around $1,000 in shipping all said and done.


For a week Sheena and I weighed our options, I made phone calls to Bogota and the USA, spoke to customs brokers, posed questions on internet forums, begrudgingly spoke to Latin-American car mechanics, and generally tried to figure out what the heck to do.  The more I found out, the less I liked our options.  I just wanted it to be easy, but that was option #4, and so far we hadn’t identified that option.  As the days passed, we became more and more comfortable at the farm.

Our accommodations were in a private cabin on the outskirts of the village, at the edge of a eucalyptus grove.  Out our front door, beyond the eucalyptus trees were several varieties of fruit trees, heavy with fresh fruit free for the picking.  Sheena spent much of her free time picking figs and figuring out different ways of making dessert out of them.  Our patio overlooked a meadow of tall green grass with weeping willow trees, grazing dairy cows, and little frolicking baby cows.  On our second day a baby cow was born a stone’s throw from out patio.  For our little cabin we paid $25 per night.

Each day, our hosts Hernando and Constanza would show up at our door bearing housewarming gifts.  Some days they would have a pitcher of fresh squeezed juice from one of their fruit trees, or a platter of fresh fruit.  One day Hernando dropped off a bag of fresh coffee that he had just roasted using beans from a neighboring farm.  Constanza dropped off a bowl of freshly ground beef from one of their cows so that we could make barbequed hamburgers on the wood fired grill.  They brought over a bowl of dessert figs that Constanza made, lighting a fig fire inside of Sheena that would prove impossible to extinguish.

Once we discovered the bounty available from the surrounding farms, we began to subsist entirely on things that came from within the village.  We bought peaches from the farm up the hill, raw coffee beans from the farm down the canyon, which I would roast in a pan, fresh honey from another farmer, and fruits and vegetables from the Monday market.  After discovering that Hernando and Constanza had fresh beef from their cows, we kept ourselves in good supply of filet mignon for the grill.  For around $30 per week we stayed stocked up on fresh local food and ate like kings.  Well, a king and a queen.

Our evenings were spent barbequing, watching fireflies in our meadow, and curling up to watch movies.  We woke each morning to sunlight filling our cabin through the curtains, followed by a tired stumble through the meadow to fill up our morning milk pitcher directly from the cow’s udder.  Somehow, the importance of choosing an option for how to fix our transmission seemed a distant second to living the good life.

Each morning Sheena and I donned our running shoes and stole away into the hills surrounding Susacón.  We ran out the back of the farm, up the cobbled track that leads past the pigs, under the giant willows, and past the monument to the revolutionaries who marched this way on their way to the Battle of Boyacá.  We ran up a steep hill until we met the dirt road that wound its way through the forested hillsides toward Chicamocha canyon.  We ran under cover of eucalyptus and willow trees, passed by raspberry bushes, agave, and prickly pear cactus.  Each day we saw the same old woman with her bowler cap and woolen shawl, who asked us how we were dong, told us how wonderful the day was, and asked how we were liking Susacón.  After cresting the hill, we descended into a meadow where the track wound past two large weeping willows before disappearing around a bend; a Monet painting in real life.

One morning, Hernando offered to bring us hiking in the mountains above Chicamocha canyon.  To get there we drove the road where we took our morning runs, but this time continued until we reached the edge of the canyon.  There, his aunt lived in a picturesque house with a commanding view of the Susacón valley.  After coffee and a couple of shots of a local liqueur, we continued on our way along the rim of Chicamocha.  When we reached a landslide blocking the road, we left the car and hiked to a peak overlooking the canyon.

After telling us about the area and pointing out the places where his family had historically operated farms in the surrounding hills, Hernando left us and headed back to town in his car.  Sheena and I would laze about for a while, have a picnic on the edge of the canyon, and then hike back to town.  As we sat, we talked about how much we’d fallen in love with Colombia.  Being stranded in Susacón was really a blessing and we didn’t much care to leave.

On the hike down, Sheena and I begrudgingly brought up the topic of what to do about our transmission.  Cycling through our options made my head hurt.  Nothing was going to be easy, and nothing would be cheap.  I thought about driving around the world with a transmission rebuilt by a deranged maniac and it made my stomach turn.

“Why don’t we just go home and pick up a transmission ourselves?”  Sheena asked.  The idea had come up before, but it was likely the most expensive option and it didn’t make any logistical sense.  We reiterated this and put the idea away.  We hiked on in silence.  I turned the idea over in my mind as we walked through the eucalyptus and weeping willows, the raspberries and the stone fences.  I thought about how much this place seemed like Northern California or Oregon.

It was true, going home would be expensive and there would be easier ways of getting a new transmission.  But why not go home?  It would cost more money, sure, but it would be refreshing.  We could catch up with friends and family, reacquaint ourselves with American pizza, Mexican food, mountain biking and microbrewed beer.  Colombia would be an easy country to come back to.  In the end, which path would make us the happiest?

“So, what do you think about going home?”  I said, to which Sheena’s eyes almost popped out of her head.  “Let’s do it!”  And just like that, we had created our own Option #4 and had selected it.  Three days later we would be hopping on a plane from Bogota bound for Phoenix, retracing seven months of driving in a single day.  It’s funny how one thing can lead to another.

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Aug 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 35 Comments

Lost in Transmission

As soon as I knew what it was to want, I desired nothing more than to be the commander of an intergalactic space shuttle.  Later on I decided that I would make a better commercial fishing boat captain.  For a short time in 5th grade, my best friend Nick and I decided that we wanted to be nefarious gang members.  We even went so far as to form our own gang called The Bloody Devils; we designed a logo that we intended to get tatted on our arms (a dagger with dripping blood), and declared the Southwestern corner of the Heritage Middle School playground as “our turf”.  My mom, ever the supporter, bought me a red bandana so there would be no confusion as to the level of my bad-assedness.

During recess we would defend our turf by staging shirtless wrestling matches against our rival gang members, who weren’t even prepared enough to have a gang name, a logo, or a turf on which to stage their own turf wars.  However, after a few weeks of prepubescent territorial squabbling, our aspirations shifted to the NBA and our turf fell into the hands of Eric Seeley and his nameless, logoless cronies.  These last few weeks I’ve been wishing to be Barbara Walters, or some other tough-talking interviewer.  I wake up in the middle of the night waiting with anticipation for the Colombian mechanic to answer my question; why did you do it?  I tried to get away from these mechanics, but they wouldn’t let me go.  Why didn’t you just leave me alone?  Answer the question! WHY DID YOU DO IT?!

We had left El Cocuy feeling that we had just experienced the greatest highlight of our trip thus far.  What we hadn’t realized, however, was that we were driving in a ticking time bomb.

We followed James and Lauren out of town, intending to reach Villa de Leyva by evening .  When we reached the town of Guacamayas I thought I smelled a coolant leak, so when James stopped his truck to take a picture, I ran out and smelled his engine.  As I leaned over to stick my head in their wheel well, my eyes were drawn to the stream of oil gushing out of Nacho’s belly.  I flashed back to my days as a gang member, and remembered that liquid gushing out of the belly could only mean one thing.  Nacho’s nizzle had been shizzled.

Oh no – shizzled! My brain went into analytical mode to try to figure out what was happening, but my body took over and bolted like a newly dead chicken – a flurry of uncoordinated arms and legs.  While I flailed around my brain tried to make sense of my train of thought: Nacho bleeding! Dark oil between engine and transmission.  No oil trail – must have started when I stopped.  When I stopped I turned engine off.  Must restart engine!

Sure enough, restarting the engine caused the oil to slow down, and revving it to 3,000 RPM caused it to stop leaking.  I wasn’t about to be stuck in the middle of the remote Colombian mountains – 9 hours from a big city – with a major mechanical issue.  I would just have to keep the engine speed above 3,000 RPM until we could get to our next stop, where I could set up shop for a while to fix whatever was wrong.

Forty five minutes passed and everything seemed to be going okay.  On occasion I would stop and run out to see if the leak had worsened, but it seemed to be holding.  As we began descending into Chicamocha canyon, the transmission made a funny sound.  Actually, there was nothing funny about it.  The transmission made a sound scary enough to make a grown man wet his pants, but only just a little bit.  I admitted defeat and pulled under a shade tree next to a grove of prickly pear cactus.  A small stream of transmission fluid coated the dry grass while I sat staring out of the windshield.  Sheena knew better than to ask what I was going to do.  No, by now she knows that these moments of silence are my time to come to terms with the fact that I have no idea what to do.

By now it was clear that the transmission, and not the engine, was bleeding out.  A small feat of German engineering called the “oil slinger” was keeping the oil from pouring out of what was probably a failed transmission oil seal – but it only worked above 3,000 RPM.  What had caused the seal to fail was anyone’s guess.  I decided to use our reserve of gear oil to refill the transmission and try to get to Villa de Leyva.  We had long since, and perhaps foolishly, waved James and Lauren on, promising to meet up with them at the campground.

After the transmission refill – a procedure that takes close to an hour on the Vanagon – we finished the descent into the canyon, crossed the river, and then started the switchback ascent up the other side.  By the time we reached the village at the top of the climb I was feeling more confident that we could make it.  We were done with the toughest part and had reached a more frequently trafficked road.

It was in between the towns of Soatá and Susacón, while I sat there with a smug look on my face thinking I was so damn smart, that Nacho lost all power, came to a stop, voided his bowels right there in the middle of the dirt road, and started rolling backwards.  My smug look evaporated and I stared out of the windshield.  Sheena knew better than to ask what I was going to do.  I cycled through all of the gears, but forward motion was not to be.  Nacho had failed an epic fail.

After cursing our luck, we put our friendly hitchhiker faces on and tricked a nice Colombian man into helping us out.  We roped up to his truck and settled in for the short three mile haul to Susacón.  The alternative was our winchless self-recovery system, which somehow felt far under qualified for the job.  Instead we just sat there, Sheena restraining from asking me the obvious question.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Latin-American car mechanics since starting this trip, it’s that 99% of them don’t have the faintest clue how to work on cars.  They take things apart really fast until they feel like they’ve sufficiently destroyed whatever it is they were working on, and then they start putting things back together incorrectly, while leaving some things out and then tightening the bolts as much as their fingers or pliers will allow.  I recently made a decree not to let anyone who isn’t me touch our innocent little Nacho ever again.  A transmission failure, while a much bigger job than anything else that’s gone wrong, would be no different.  I figured I would get the transmission out so I could see what was wrong, and to do so I would just need to borrow a jack.  I asked the man to pull us near to the town’s mechanic shop so I could ask about renting a jack.  He happily obliged, and we soon found ourselves parked on the street in front of a grungy dirt-floored hole full of rusty junk.  We left Nacho parked on the street and set off to find a place to stay for the night.

In the morning I walked to the mechanic’s shop to ask if I could rent his jack to remove our transmission.  One might try to defend the mechanic for his idiocy by suggesting that something was lost in translation, but no.  The discussion went exactly as follows, except in Spanish.  I know, because I’ve dreamt it over and over in my Barbara Walters dream:

“Hi, our transmission has failed and I’ll be needing to do some work on it.  I prefer to work on my own car, but I don’t have a jack.  Would it be possible for me to borrow your jack later so that I can work on my transmission?  I’d be willing to pay you.”

“Yes, no problem.  I have a jack that you can use.  Just come and find me when you need it; I’ll be in my house.”

With that out of the way, I went off to the internet café to seek advice on The Samba and from my brother, who is a master technician for BMW.  After almost two hours, due to a slow internet connection, I was back on my feet headed toward Nacho.  Nothing could have prepared me for the sight I saw.

There, right in the middle of the street, the mechanic and the hotel owner from across the road were sprawled out under Nacho.  All around them were mounds of nuts, bolts, washers, spacers, and unidentifiable doo dads.  For some inexplicable reason the mechanic had taken apart my driver’s side rear hub, and my drum brake was hanging from my now bent hydraulic brake line.  To remove the hub housing from the swingarm, he removed all of the bolts using vice grips.  These bolts are tightened to over 100ft-lbs; needless to say he destroyed the bolts.

He wanted to remove my shift linkage from the transmission, but rather than removing the single nut that connects it, he first attempted to take apart the universal joint at the opposite end of the van.  Unable to do so, he left the joint partially destroyed and instead disconnected the splined shift linkage interface – which you’re NOT supposed to touch!

Having successfully obliterated my shift linkage, he set to work on getting the actual transmission out.  He started by undoing all of my CV bolts with a pair of vice grips, destroying the bolts in the process.

After incorrectly disconnecting the transmission from the frame, he let the whole engine/transmission assembly fall some unknown distance to his jack, which cause the air filter box to rip clean off of the engine compartment wall.  He knew so little about what he was doing that, by the time I found him, he had already started trying to pull the drive flanges out of the side of the transmission while it was hanging there.


It was all I could think to say.  For several seconds I reprimanded him, but since the transmission was lying on his chest he didn’t make much of an effort to move.

“I need to replace the clutch.”

“No, you need to get the hell out from under there!”

In a flurry of vice grips and oily hands the two of them, ignoring me, separated the transmission from the engine, unbolted the clutch pressure plate, and removed the clutch.

“Give me the new clutch,” he said, holding out his grease-covered grubby little hands.  He actually expected that I would give him my brand new clutch so he could destroy it by covering it in grease and gear oil.  Furthermore, I actually think he planned to install it and put it all back together so I could drive along on my merry way.  Clearly this guy was a deranged maniac.  I tried to think what I would have done if I were a gang member, but somehow taking off my shirt and wrestling him didn’t seem appropriate.

At long last, the deranged maniac got out from under Nacho, whereupon I continued to yell profanities and disbelieving questions at him.  “What were you thinking?  What didn’t you understand about my simple instructions?  Did you know I used to be a nefarious gang member!?”

After the moron finished putting our hub back together, I grabbed our transmission and put it in the back of the van.  I crawled under Nacho and placed all of the nuts and bolts in a plastic box and set them inside for later, and then I used several ratchet straps to hold the axles and the engine up, which he had left hanging without any support.  Once Nacho was sufficiently buttoned up, I went back to our temporary home – Hospedaje La Violeta – and told our host, Luis, about what had happened.

As evening fell, Luis and I snuck over to Nacho by cover of dusk and hitched a tow strap to the front bumper.  Without being detected by the deranged mechanic we slipped away to the relative safety of his gated farm.  When we reached the farm, several of his farm hands joined in pushing Nacho through the wooden gate leading to our small cabin on the edge of a eucalyptus grove.  With Nacho out of harm’s way, Sheena and I slipped into our cabin where, for night after night, I would dream that I was Barbara Walters chasing the elusive truth within the deranged mind of the mechanic of Susacón.

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Jun 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 25 Comments

Not All Rainbows and Unicorns

Lying on my back under Nacho on the side of the road, my hair becoming matted in oily mud, It occurred to me: this is probably the first time in five months that an office desk didn’t seem like a bad place to be.  The events over the last 65 miles leading up to this point were almost unbelievable.  Like listening for hours on end of the bone-chilling sound of children’s laughter, this too was a test of endurance.

In Costa Rica, our planned two week stop in Atenas had turned into a month.  We had dropped Nacho at a shop for a week of TLC, but after a week they hadn’t yet started to work.  After two weeks, the engine and transmission were on the ground, but no real progress had been made.  Meanwhile, Sheena and I were going stir crazy.  The list of jobs I gave to the mechanic at the beginning was a half page long, including the replacement of several oil seals, new brake rotors, a clutch inspection and slave cylinder rebuild, and a full-fledged investigation into why our rear wheel bearings kept failing.  At this rate, we would be back on the road in a year.  Maybe two.

Week three in the shop saw me spending every day there, doing much of the work myself.  There was no other way we’d get back up and running otherwise. By the middle of week four, Nacho was ready to roll with new engine oil seals, transmission seals, an inspected clutch, new valve cover  and water pump seals, new brake rotors and front wheel bearings, and all new fuel lines in the engine compartment.  I also managed to install an industrial fuel filter before the fuel pump to combat silt-laden gas later in our trip. Notably absent from our list of complete projects was the full-fledged investigation into our rear wheel bearings – the main reason we stopped in the first place.  After a month, however, we were unable to hang around any longer. The rainy season had come, and we had long overstayed our welcome at our layover house.

At long last, a full month after we arrived in Atenas, we hit the road.  Our friends had invited us to go trout fishing in the mountains outside of Cartago, and as we climbed the steep road into the mountains, we saw the first bad omen: our oil pressure light started to flicker.  Without an oil pressure gauge, there wasn’t much I could do, so we kept driving.  Before long, we arrived at the dirt road that led to the trout pond.  Waiting for us at the turnoff were our friends James and Lauren, who, after having seen the road, assumed (correctly) that we’d need a tow up the steepest section.

A hundred yards down the dirt road, all hell broke loose in Nacho’s front end; in an instant it sounded like our van was being attacked by Langoliers.  You know, from that Stephen King movie.

I got out in the pouring rain and mud, and jacked Nacho up.  It was immediately obvious that something had gone horribly wrong; the front wheels were totally effed up, as we engineers say.  I took the wheels off and found that both hubs were about to come apart, and both wheels were hanging onto their spindles by a few threads.  Further investigation showed that our mechanic had failed to adequately peen both front hub locknuts, and they had almost completely backed off.  I disbelievingly unscrewed them the rest of the way with my fingers.

I reassembled the hubs and torqued the locknuts to the factory spec, and then peened them in place.  After putting everything back together we again got underway.  Some of the noise had subsided, but it still sounded like a dominatrix was whipping Nacho with a chain as we drove.  Not a nice dominatrix either – more like a truck driver dressed as a dominatrix.  It was bad.  We were only a few hundred meters from our camp, and decided to press on and figure it out later on when it wasn’t dark and raining.

In the morning, I found that one of our front brake caliper bolts had fallen out, and the other one had backed out 90% of the way.  This would have been due to improper torque being applied by the mechanics when they reassembled the brakes after we swapped rotors.  Our caliper had been smashing around as we drove on the dirt road, making all kinds of racket.  We walked back on the road and miraculously found the missing bolt, and then I remounted the caliper and set the torque on all of the brake caliper bolts.  With a  torque wrench.  The way Mother Nature intended it.

At the trout farm we met up with several of our overlanding friends; James, Lauren, Jessica, Kobus, and Jared.  We spent two days stream fishing (with limited luck), pond fishing (with ease, as the pond was stocked with trout), Dutch oven cooking, and seeking refuge from the newly arrived rainy season.  The pond was so well stocked, in fact, that it seemed like a great idea to try spearfishing for some trout.  You see, after so much time away from academia and other forms of intellectual stimulation, my mind is becoming soft like baby fat.

On the second morning, I wrestled myself into my wetsuit and donned my flippers and mask.  I slipped into the black, icy cold pond carrying my speargun, and put my head under the water.  It was worse than the red tide in Playa Coco.  In a small pond containing hundreds of slimy, writhing water-breathing beasts, I couldn’t see a thing.  Do trout have teeth?  So terrifying.  I held the speargun up in front of me, but couldn’t see as far as the tip.  It should have been obvious to me that if you can’t see the spear tip, you won’t see anything in front of the spear tip either.  The odds were stacked against me, but the frigid water was constricting the blood flow to my baby fat mind.  I hunted on.

After 15 minutes I had failed to spear anything and was teetering on the edge of hypothermia.  Our new friend Juan even came down and fed the fish all around me, trying to give me a clear shot.  Even with hundreds of trout bodies slapping my body in a feeding frenzy, it wasn’t to be.  My repeated blind shots failed to kill anything except for my dreams.  The trout had won.

Back on the road, we pointed toward Pavones in the far South of Costa Rica.  If all went well, by the following morning we’d be surfing the world’s second longest left hand break.  The mechanical gods had a different idea, and a few miles after leaving, while traveling up a long climb in the pouring rain, our front brakes overheated.  We pulled over as smoke billowed out from our front wheels.

After pulling the front wheels off, it became clear that our front brake pistons were frozen.  This meant that when I would apply the brakes, the pads would squeeze the disc brake, but wouldn’t retract, leaving our brakes on at all times.  I removed the brake pads and cycled the pistons in and out, trying to loosen them up.  I noticed that the rubber piston seals were shredded, allowing water and grit to fly right into the calipers.

Back on the road, we made it no farther than a few more miles before we smelled the unmistakable odor of burning asbestos.  My half-assed brake fix had failed to solve our sticky piston problem.  We pulled to the roadside, this time on a descent leading into an enormous valley in the middle of nowhere, and settled in.  I decided to rebuild our calipers there on the roadside, and make a crude repair to the dust seals with some RTV silicone.  We were ready to spend at least one night on the side of the road.

While removing the first caliper my wrench slipped and I ripped a chunk of flesh from my thumb on the fenderwell.  Not a great start.  As I pulled the first caliper from the van, a man walked up to us.  His engine had blown a few kilometers down the road, and he was trying to find some food for his waiting family.  He told us that if we were able to coast down to where he was stopped, his son, a mechanic from San Jose, would be arriving at 8:30PM to give him a tow.  He called him and verified that he would be able to help us out.

At 11:30PM, the man’s son and another mechanic showed up and started working on Nacho.  Rather than rebuild the calipers, they opted to cycle them in and out as I had done earlier, only this time they sprayed WD40 into the pistons.  Not quite as good, but it was enough to get all four pistons moving enough to move along safely.  We spent the night by the roadside, and in the morning we headed out.  I would just have to find a couple of caliper rebuild kits soon.  My new rotors had already warped due to the stuck pistons, and I would need to get everything back to normal before any more damage was done.

We carried on through San Isidro, and started the long descent to the coast.  I put Nacho in first gear and slowly crept along so as not to have to rely much on our brakes.  We arrived in Dominical late in the day and turned South on the coastal road.  A mile down the road, I heard a light tapping from the rear wheel.  I swerved a couple of times to assess where it was coming from, when all of a sudden we lost all engine power and a rapid beating sound erupted from our rear end.  It sounded like we’d run over one of those improvised explosive devices, but I quickly ruled that out.  Seemed unlikely.

As I got out, my mind first went to a transmission failure.  I really hoped it was a failed CV joint instead.  In the sweltering heat and humidity I lowered myself into the dirt and crawled under Nacho’s underbelly.  I grabbed the axle and it spun freely in my hand.  Somehow the passenger side outer CV joint had come completely unbolted from the stub axle.  All six bolts, the ones I’ve been battling for the last two years to keep tight, the ones I replaced right before the trip and slathered with “permanent” Loctite, had all come out.

Since the CV joint was exposed to the elements, I had no choice but to unbolt the entire axle and rebuild the joint.  This is a job I’ve done at least a half dozen times in my ongoing quest to keep the CV bolts from coming loose, so I knew exactly what to do.  What I didn’t count on was the downpour that started just before I was ready to crawl back under Nacho to bolt everything back in place.

As I lay there on my back, my hair becoming matted and my shirt becoming soaked in oily mud, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself.  This whole ordeal had started with preventative maintenance.  Then, in a span of 65 miles we had a tire puncture, an oil pressure light, had to be towed up two hills, our hubs came loose, our brake caliper bolts fell out, our brake pistons seized up, and our axle fell off.  Now I was lying on my back in a mud puddle with mosquitoes buzzing around my face while I slowly hit each of the 12 passenger side axle bolts with brake cleaner, wire brush, Loctite, and a torque wrench.

I will henceforth be doing all of my own auto mechanics, and that’s final.  There’s a reason I spent two tedious years learning how to work on Nacho correctly.   And while many days make our hearts want to explode with overwhelming joy, days like this remind us that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns out here.  But we’ve come this far, so what the hell.  Might as well see what tomorrow brings.

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