5 Apr

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.

Stranded van at the scrapyard

At least our stranded van isn't in as bad a state as the one in the foreground

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?

Scrapyard guard dog Molly

The scrapyard's guard dog Molly is a sucker for some cooked liver

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.

Elvin and family

Elvin and his family have been looking out for us

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?

Days: 185
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

18 Responses to “Breakdown”

  1. Gary Rubin April 5, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    Oh, nooooooooooooooooooooooo…………..I am so sorry to hear about this. Thank goodness you did get some Spanish skills under your belt(s)

    I can ask Katie to ask her nice Catholic mother to say the van repair prayer (reprayer?).

    Hopefully after Easter, the van will rise again.Dang, I am really sorry and will keep good positive energy and thoughts for you two!

    Best, Gary

    PS—–keep drinking lots of rum

    • jeremyandpaula April 5, 2012 at 3:06 pm #

      You were so quick with the Resurrection joke! Good work. xx

  2. joeapollosjourney April 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

    Oh, no! You guys….! I’m speechless. I was waiting for something about April Fool’s Day at the end, but no such luck. We will send you positive energy from Oaxaca. I don’t know what to say except Hang In There! You can make it through this!!!

  3. James (@HomeOnHighway) April 5, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

    ouch! I hope you guys get it figured out, We have been struggling as well this week with car issues in Honduras. I have been driving around for 4 days with no brakes, not many mechanics/auto part stores open this week. If you are still in Copan Ruinas, search out Thomas’s bar (Sol Cerveciria AKA German Bar) He loves VW and knows a good mechanic in-town, I think he works primarily on Toyotas but he might be able to give you an idea of somewhere closer than Tegu. Good luck guys! We might be passing through Tegu in a few days, beers on me!

    • jeremyandpaula April 6, 2012 at 7:37 am #

      hi James, that’s great thanks. We’ll have a chat with him. And we’ll keep you posted as to where we end up. Let us know if/when you are in Teguc. Hope you get your problems sorted out too.

  4. ruth April 6, 2012 at 2:30 am #

    Oh god what a mare! It will all come right in the end i guess and then seem funny but right now i bet your getting crazy as it’s all so out of your control. It brings back some memories of push starting ours in the arse end of nowhere and spending a couple of weeks making sure we were parked on a slope everynight so that gravity would help to get the 3.5 tonnes moving the next day!
    Keep drinking the rum and enjoy the easter celebrations wherever you find yourselves.
    good luck xxx

    • jeremyandpaula April 6, 2012 at 7:34 am #

      hi Ruth, that actually makes us feel better! Yes the lack of control is one of the worse things. We can’t just pick up the phone and tell someone to sort it. We’ll keep you posted! love p & j xx

  5. John Chapman April 6, 2012 at 8:55 am #

    Sending good vibrations for you guys from Brussels. Hope you can relax for a couple of days, best, John

  6. Lucy April 6, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    Pop Top Heaven should be renamed Pop Top Hell. But, Paula, if you ever find yourself wondering about why you left your privileged existence, recall the phrases ‘just clone that story and do a cosmetic tweak’, ‘top four pars’, and the dreaded ‘index alsos’. Now think about how those phrases would make you feel if you heard them at 3am while staring glassy-eyed at a computer screen in a freezing newsroom. Miss it? Thought not.

    I know this experience is tough now, but I’m sure those Hondurans will sort you out somehow, and I’m sure they know how to party at Easter Week. Knowing you guys, you’ll end up adopted by a family of 20, leading the village procession on Easter Sunday, roasting a whole hog, and dancing till dawn fuelled by rum. Lucy x

    • jeremyandpaula April 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

      hey there. I thought someone might oblige with a reminder of why it might be better to be here…!
      I know we sound horribly self-pitying, but can’t pretend this past week hasn’t been really shitty, and we’re not out of the woods yet. However, you are right, for me there is no reason to miss night shifts or any shifts for that matter. And I don’t! p xx

  7. nanorob April 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    i’m quite jealous you are getting to see the Copan Ruins. lucky! we were sad to miss those.

    oh, and sorry about the van.

  8. nanorob April 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    lucky! you get to see copan ruins! we missed those.

    and sorry about the van.

    -rob rakowczyk

    • jeremyandpaula April 6, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

      hi you! Thanks for the message. How’s home?

      • nanorob April 7, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

        it’s good to be home. i’m rapidly regaining the pounds i lost while on holiday! on monday this week, i started getting fever/chills/body aches which looked a lot like amy’s malaria, so we went to the doc on wednesday. they took a blood sample, but i’m afraid they botched up the lab (it should be read within an hour, but they didn’t read it for at least 3 hours), so even though the results came back negative, i started taking malaria treatment meds on thursday. the pills are kicking my ass, but the chills and fever are gone, so i guess that’s good. i miss drinking beer.

        that really sucks about your van, but i’m glad to hear that you two are making it through with such wonderful people helping you out!

  9. Lynda Barnetche April 7, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    Hey Paula and Jeremy,

    Sorry about your predicament. Sounds like you’re dealing with it as well as you can. Most likely it will be up and running again next week…

    Your comment about your car also being your home really speaks to us, as our VW Camper was stolen right off a street in Bratislava, Slovakia last summer and was never recovered. (Big surprise). At least you still have a place to sleep, lol.

    Best of luck to you,

    Lynda Barnetche

    • jeremyandpaula April 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm #

      Hi Lynda, thanks for the note. I feel terrible for you about losing your whole van, that must have been awful. Did you get any money from the insurance? (not that that is the point) We do keep reminding ourselves that this is by no means our worst case scenario. Hope you found a way to keep travelling..

  10. Irene April 9, 2012 at 11:10 am #

    Hi you two, I’ve been closely watching your travels, seeing as I expect to do pretty much the same either later this year or next. I bought the Eurovan Weekender 2003 automatic trans. and already have 5 different mechanic quotes here in the SF Bay Area, as to what is “that noise coming from somewhere”. Various quotes were “loose trans. mount”, “bent gravel guard”, “need trans. fluid change”, “metal shavings – need new trans” and so on. Wed. is my last ditch attempt to find the problem – I’m taking it to a supposedly VW expert place in Berkeley. So I’m curious to see how this all works out for you. I’m hoping of course that you get up and running and on your way soon.
    By the way, I visited Copan many years ago (spent time every year in Guatemala/Honduras) – so at least that’s the upside of your jaunt down there. Good luck with it all. By the way, a close English friend wanted to subscribe to your blog, so I hope I signed him up correctly. He knows a bit about cars too….

  11. lyndacuba April 9, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    Fingers crossed you get it resolved. On the bright side: if it all went smoothly you wouldn’t remember your road trip and you’d have nothing to write about. It’s true what you say about the kindness of strangers – especially those who have nothing but still find something to give 🙂

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