I wouldn’t say we are clumsy people by nature, but in recent weeks we have broken more things than could be considered normal for anyone beyond toddler age. Is anything built to last?
One of the many things we have discovered in the last year is that when your domestic world shrinks to the size of a van and its contents, and when that world is constantly moving, it is infuriating in stratospheric proportions when things break.
Why? Because every single thing in the van is there because we need it, there’s no room for spares, and many of those things – such as an awning to protect us from burning sun and rainstorms – can feel pretty crucial to us having a pleasant day.
And when stuff does break we rarely have a quick solution. Always being in a foreign landscape, we don’t immediately know where to go to replace things or get them fixed. Everything takes longer to resolve. Vehicle camping is a foreigners’ pursuit here, so you can’t just walk into a shop and expect to find the particular kind of stuff you need for a trip like this. As for mechanical problems, well… the world over, finding a trustworthy mechanic is a lottery, and Latin America is no different.
Conversely though, when you do solve a problem, you celebrate as if you’d just won a hat-trick of golds at the Olympics. At both ends of the scale, our emotions are often all out of proportion.
We’d had a good trouble-free run with the van since leaving Honduras. So when the ‘check engine’ light came on in Cabuya, Costa Rica, we pulled into a mechanic with some trepidation about the diagnosis. If I even heard anyone whisper the word “transmission”, I’d decided, I was just going to lie on the ground and stay there with my hands over my ears.
So we were actually quite relieved when he said it was the catalytic converter. Yeah it was definitely that, he said. He told us to get a new one, so en route to the next place we called into an exhaust specialist and asked him to replace it. After a few hours it was done and off we went.
As darkness approached we took a punt on a sign off the main highway to a restaurant and trout farm that we hoped we could camp at. We bumped along for a few kilometres and arrived to find it in darkness. But soon enough the lovely family that owned it came out and gave us an enthusiastic welcome, letting us camp in a lovely spot by the river and offering to open up the kitchen to cook us some rice and chicken. We’d only been passing through, but it was so nice we decided to spend the next day there.
In the morning one of the children, 15-year-old Alberth, took us hiking to a waterfall and gorgeous swimming hole. As we tramped along Jeremy stopped dead behind me. “You’ve just stood on a snake,” he said. I looked back and a small brown snake was curled up on a leaf I’d just walked over.
We looked to Alberth for reassurance, but he reared backwards and said: “That’s really bad.” Another venomous viper! We can’t move for those at the moment. He flicked it into the undergrowth with a stick and we tried not to think about what could have been.
When we set off the next morning the check engine light shone back to life. It was Sunday, inevitably, so nothing could be done. It was also our 300th day on the road, and as we carried on down the Pacific coast and passed Dominical, we hit our 10,000-miles-so-far mark. We do love a milestone or two.
We drove to Uvita, a stunning flat, wide surfers’ beach, and happily based ourselves there for a few days to sort things out and take long walks on the sand.
The mechanic we found there said the problem we had was with one of our 02 sensors. He rang his mate who knows about European cars. Yeah, it was definitely that, he said. It would need to be replaced, and the original part for VW would come from San Jose in a couple of days. No problem. We arranged to bring the van back in 3 days to have it fitted, and would then drive straight to our next destination.
Three days later we went back. It was the kind of day that is becoming wearily familiar, going roughly like this:
US: “We’re here”
HIM: “But the part is not. Apparently it’s a holiday so there are no deliveries, but I’ve told him he has to be here this morning with the parts. Come back in a couple of hours.”
US: “We’re here again.”
HIM: “He’s still not here. He says he’s 20 minutes away. Come back in 45.”
An hour later..
US: “We’re here. Again. Hello?”
No sign of HIM.
HIS COLLEAGUE: “Erm, he’s not here. He’s gone to (name of random town). Or was it (name of other random town)… [or perhaps he’s just hiding? – ed] Anyhow, he said to tell you the delivery guy’s bike broke down 2 hours from here so he’s not coming now. You should probably just come back tomorrow.”
We found a new place to camp, and returned in the morning.
HIM: “The part’s here but I need longer than I thought because the previous guy has welded the 02 sensor to the catalytic converter. [you’re really not supposed to do that – ed]. And I don’t think he’s put the right catalytic converter in there either.”
I’m afraid to say so many mechanics here spend a lot of time spouting off about what a terrible job the previous mechanic has done, only to then find a whole new way of buggering it up themselves.
We finally set off for the Osa Peninsula several hours late. An hour down the road the check engine light came back on. We swore a lot, pulled off the road in nowheresville and miraculously found a mechanic with computer diagnostics. He said there was a problem with the 02 sensor – that the mechanic we’d just used in Uvita had not installed an original part and what he had installed he appeared to have buggered up.
We sat in the car park in the pouring train, trying to decide whether to go back and get him to re-do it, or move on and forget him. Once someone has done a bad job, do you really want to wait around for another few days so they can cock it up again?
We moved on and decided to forget about it for a few days, as although the van was sounding a bit rough it was okay to drive.
After a certain point the road to Puerto Jimenez, on the Osa Peninsula, deteriorates massively. We weaved up over the mountain in the fog and rain, trying to avoid the cavernous water-filled potholes. The road soon became more pothole than road, and we were finding it hard to see them as dusk fell. We pulled over to a national park ranger station and asked to camp and the guys were very obliging, waving us into a space next to their base. As so often happens, they kept their distance for a while, and then a little delegation was assembled to come over to peer inside the van and ask about our trip.
During the night, disaster struck. One of our worst fears, in fact. As we slumbered, at 4am the propane gas alarm went off, meaning we had leaking gas building up inside the van. When there’s any loud noise at night Jeremy’s reactions are lightning quick. He was on his feet and flinging the door open before I could say ‘wha…”. We were really shaken up – where the hell was the gas coming from? We switched it off at source so the gas quickly cleared, and the alarm stopped sounding. Another puzzle to solve.
It’s all about balance. Most times these annoyances melt away quickly after the initial tantrum. We look around at where we are, remember what we are experiencing, and resolve to not let the little problems ever dominate the endless amazing things we are seeing and doing.
Just to prove that very point, when we arrived in Puerto Jimenez the next morning in bright sunshine, we pulled into one of the most sublime camping sites we have encountered on this trip – a beautiful patch of land flanked by the ocean and a lagoon, where the trees are filled with scarlet macaws. As we parked up these bright red, yellow and blue parrots were swooping all around the sky above us. It was like being on some kind of film set, they just don’t look real.
The surreal nature of the morning continued when the owner, Adonis, came over and offered to take us to see the crocodiles in the lagoon. We watched, slightly nervously, as he called these enormous crocs and caiman over to be hand-fed. They reared out of the water and we took several steps back as they tossed huge chunks of fatty meat into the air and chewed loudly before slouching back into the water.
On the second day Adonis came over and said he’d been worrying in the night about where we’d camped – under a huge tree that was leaning over us. Great for shade, we thought.
“See all these massive logs lying around on the ground,” he said, pointing to various logs which I had draped our wet clothes over. “Those are rotten trees like this one that have previously fallen down. If one falls on your van I’d have to give you a patch of land as compensation.”
Hhmm, we both thought, that doesn’t sound too bad, this being one of the most incredible pieces of land we’ve seen in all of Costa Rica.
“Well, that’s if you’re still alive,” he said. We found this to be a convincing argument, and moved the van.
While camping there we really went to town on the breakages. Another camping chair. Snap. The leg of our awning – sheared in half due to the weight of water after a storm. A vent cover ripped off the outside of the van in an incident with a gate. Then the central locking started behaving independently, locking and unlocking itself while we were sitting having a cuppa outside the van.
Our much-needed back window blind, a kind of sprung concertina design which couldn’t be replaced here in a million years, went doiiiinggg and the bracket we need to fix it disappeared forever. Jeremy tried to repair it, but one night – in a scene not unlike the propane alarm incident – it pinged off with a great thwack, right next to our heads. In a nanosecond, as I tried to open my sleepy eyes, Jeremy was on his feet: “That was a tree! A tree falling on the van!” he shouted.
“It was the blind breaking again,” I muttered. “Now lie down.”
Things we now know to be true: There are no quick fixes.