PD, Copan Ruinas, Honduras
The van has broken down and we are stranded in the middle of nowhere in Honduras. At the moment it seems like our mechanical problem might be fairly catastrophic, not to mention financially tear-inducing. There’s no way to sugar-coat that or make it funny – not at the moment anyway. These things usually have a way of becoming humorous with hindsight, and we really hope this time will be no different.
But for the last few days we have been miserable buggers.
It looks like our automatic transmission, or gearbox, might be a goner. In our last post we were primarily worried about our brakes, but we did have another nagging doubt about the gears too. Several mechanics told us recently that the gears were fine, and we believed them.
On Saturday, one day after crossing into Honduras from El Salvador, we were driving past the outskirts of a small village when we started to lose power, and then everything just stopped. Rev, rev, nothing. Someone helped push the van off the road, and Jeremy went to talk to a nearby mechanic.
We waited in the searing heat for him to come and have a look. Meanwhile the bloke who owned the car wash/scrapyard across the road came to see what was going on. Little did we know then that we’d end up living in that scrapyard for the next four days.
The van was pushed over to the scrapyard and onto a steep concrete ramp. The mechanic looked underneath and declared that the transmission was broken, we needed a new one, and that there was no chance of getting it in Honduras.
It was a proper ‘oh shit’, head-in-hands moment. We gaped while the gathering crowd of men kept reminding us how completely stuffed we were, lest we had not understood the first time.
If we’d had to choose a Central American country to get stranded in, Honduras would have been bottom of the list. If we’d had to choose a time to break down, it would not have been Saturday night, on the weekend just before the biggest week-long holiday in Latin America, Semana Santa (Easter). It did not help that we were hours from a decent-sized town or city. And while our Spanish is improving, it is not quite up to this kind of complication.
It was obvious that we were going to be in this situation for quite some time. We resolved to get the van back off the ramp, push it into the corner and set up ‘camp’ for the night.
But a more immediate problem presented itself. The wheels were completely locked, and the van would not roll backwards off the ramp. Everyone heaved and heaved until I thought something would snap. Nada.
“We climbed inside and drank a lot of rum”.
One of the men asked where we’d been planning to stay – a hotel in another town, perhaps? I pointed to the top of the ramp, where the van was hanging at a 45-degree angle, and said in a shrill voice that we lived there. It needed to come down or we’d have nowhere to go.
They worked on it for nearly two hours, until after dark, struggling to remove the wheel joints so it would roll back. We cringed as they whacked at the underside of the wheels with a hammer. At last, it worked, and they pushed our poor stricken van back down onto the ground.
We climbed inside and drank a lot of rum.
For the next three days we nearly sent ourselves mad, trying to think of the best way out. I don’t mind admitting we were a bit frightened and out of our depth. We didn’t, and still don’t, know what to do for the best.
We only had the opinion of a village mechanic. But where else could we take the van and how would we get it there? What parts did we need and where, and how, could we get them?
Everything was made worse by the fact that we were living in the scrapyard, on the junction of the main road and the thoroughfare to the village. We had no privacy and, despite reassurances, we couldn’t be sure we were safe. We bribed the dog, Molly, with meat and she obligingly guarded the van.
Remarkably the village, which barely has anything in it, does have an internet cafe. We searched online for VW mechanics and parts in Honduras, but kept coming up blank. There appeared to be a mechanic in the capital city Tegucigalpa, but we knew nothing about him and it was a nine-hour drive away. A crazy idea? For something this potentially serious do we need a VW expert, or would a local gearbox-fixer be enough?
There have been mercifully few moments like this. We’d expected to occasionally think: ‘Why? Why was it that I gave up my comfortable, relatively privileged, cosy existence for an unpredictable life on the road?’. I’ll admit that there was probably at least one day this week when I had that thought.
But, as always on this trip, we have found people to be unbelievably helpful, trusting and generous towards us, and we are so thankful for that.
The scrapyard/car wash owner, Elvin, and his family more or less adopted us. Our van has been in residence at their business for several days. They offered to wash our clothes and let us shower in their home. The couple who own a little cafe next door gave us the key to it every night so we could use the toilet.
And the people at the VW dealer who sold us our van in California, Pop Top Heaven, are trying to help us in any way they can with advice and, if it comes to it, spare parts.
Elvin tried making several phonecalls for us, including to the VW mechanic in Tegucigalpa. After much discussion he offered to take the van there on his truck. It seems an extreme solution, but we have decided to do it.
Just one thing though, he said. There’s no point in doing anything until after Semana Santa because no one will be working. It meant killing a whole week. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? From where we were standing it felt like an eternity. But we had no choice.
We decided to take off on the bus for a few days, to sit it out until the holiday is over. We have come to Copan Ruinas, the site of Honduras’s major ruined Mayan city and a lovely little town. When we return to the scrapyard on Monday, Elvin will gather several guys together to help haul our van onto his truck. At dawn on Tuesday we will set off for Tegucigapla.
As we left their place I told Elvin’s mother I was dreading the process of getting the van up onto the truck. I said I would have bad dreams about it falling off.
She took my arm, looked up to the sky, crossed herself, and said God would take care of it.
Not wanting to appear ungrateful, I thanked her. But what I really wanted to say was – Easter or not, could we just forget about the prayers and focus on getting a really really strong piece of rope?
Miles: Erm, not sure
Things we now know to be true: A car’s not just a car when it’s your house as well