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A transmission tragedy – abridged

14 Apr

Broken van

by Paula

You might have wondered how a broken van could possibly take 11 months to repair. We’ve frequently pondered that too. Now that we’re happily on our way again, lazing on a sun-kissed Peruvian beach, let’s have a little flashback. If you are not remotely interested, step away now because it’s not going to be pretty.

There’s a US theatre company that specialises in boiling down long, serious and convoluted stories into a few minutes of entertainment. Some of their more famous performances have been the complete works of Shakespeare or the Bible, covered in one session.

They are called the Reduced Shakespeare Company. I thought I’d steal their style and turn our 11-month Ecuadorian van repair saga into a 3,000-word projectile word vomit. And, believe me, this is the summary – it doesn’t even cover the simultaneous (related) nightmare we had with immigration and customs, which is mostly covered in our Ecuador posts from last year.

It was either this or the complete works and, frankly, no one wants to read that.

——

Mid-April 2013 we pulled into a mechanic specialising in German cars, said please fix our fuel injector, they said okay. Days later they said actually it’s buggered, you need a new one, we said okay we’ll order one from the US. It arrived, they said oh sorry it’s a five-day holiday here now, see you next week, we said damn. [Irony alert: we were really frustrated about this extra five-day delay].

They faffed around then said come back to the workshop. When we returned they were pushing the van into a corner, we said that’s not good. They said while we were out testing the fuel injector the transmission broke and we had to tow it back. We said, what, our one-year-old transmission broke?! They said yeah, it’s buggered. We said, oh we better have a lie down. They said all these parts inside are broken, you need to order replacements from the US and we’ll rebuild it, we said okay. It took ages to sort out the order, send the parts to California, then Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs.

Bugger.

Bugger.

Several weeks later – in May – they arrived, we said phew, the mechanic said well not really because they have arrived incomplete. We said shit. It took ages to sort out the new order, to send the parts to California, then to Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs. Is this sounding familiar?

We said now is it ready?.. because it’s already June. They said testing went well, come in tomorrow. We arrived at the workshop, the transmission was in pieces on the floor in a puddle of oil. We said that’s not good, is it? They said all was well but after more test-driving the transmission oil starting leaking, a rubber seal is damaged, we said oh. They found a replacement. We said now is it ready? They said no, when we tested it again the transmission oil was burning up, maybe the converter is broken, we said wtf, how much will that cost? They said loads. They ordered a new one, meanwhile they tried out a used one they had. They said when we test-drove that one the transmission oil was burning up again, we said this is getting boring.

They said maybe we need some more advice, we said that might be good because it’s now, like, July. They said some expert in the US says you might need a valve body unit and you should have been sold a new cooler when you bought the transmission last year, we said it was nice of VW to tell us that when they sold us the transmission. They said bastards, we said yeah. They said we better order those then, we said okay maybe we should just buy a house here, it looks like we might never leave, they said ha ha good one!

It took ages to sort out the order, send the parts to Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs. We said are the parts here yet? They said, er, kind of but they are stuck in customs, we said there’s a surprise. We said are they here yet? They said yes, finally. We said okay can we go now? They said, well…. we put the new parts in but during the test we starting losing pressure, it might be a problem with an ‘O-ring’. We said perhaps that should be renamed the ‘O-for-fuck-sake-ring’, they said eh? They said we’ll have to look into it, we said is someone actually trying to hold us hostage here? They said it’s starting to look that way.

We said what’s happening, they said actually we think we might have had a eureka moment, we said please share. They said we are tearing our hair out here, we repair automatic gearboxes in German vehicles all the time but we’ve never seen one as bad as this, so we went back to the drawing board, we said what did you find? They said we think there was a factory fault with the transmission you had in your van, VW managed to omit a very important screw and washer that holds important things together, which means everything’s been moving inside and completely fucked it up, we said that’s disappointing, they said yeah it is. We said wouldn’t it be funny if four months of investigation and loads of money spent ends in the mystery coming down to a screw and a washer, they said yeah, hilarious.

Quito

We got to know, and love, Quito during our various stays

We said is it ready yet? They said we’ve put it together again and now we have to drive test it. We said how did it go, they said really well, we said great, they said we’ll just drive it for a couple more hours, you can pick it up tomorrow, we said phew because our visas run out again in two days, at the end of August, and now we only have a couple of weeks to get to Chile to meet Paula’s parents.

We said we’re all packed, excited and are on our way!! They said oh. We said what? They said after 100km of testing the transmission seized up, we nearly had an accident, it’s completely fucked again, it might be an electrical fault and nothing to do with the actual gearbox. We said we want to cry, we don’t think we can do this anymore, they said neither can we, we never want to see this hideously awful transmission again. We said how about you just drop the van off the hydraulic lift, total it and then we’ll claim it on the insurance, they said really? They said actually it wouldn’t do enough damage, we said that’s a shame.

We said how about we try converting it to a manual gearbox, they said good idea let’s investigate.

We said good luck with that, it’s now early September and we’re off to Chile on the bus because we have to meet my family and we’ll never get there in the van, they said have fun. We said you really have to be finished when we get back in about 6 weeks because we really have to be in Bolivia by 1 November to start a volunteer work-exchange thingy, they said yeah okay.

They said we’ve found a matching manual gearbox in Ecuador, shall we buy it?, we said yes. We said how’s it going, they said we got the gearbox but we didn’t like the look of it so we sent it back and will look for another one. We said did you find one, they said yeah but it really didn’t fit properly, but now we’ve found a third one and we like it, we said that’s good to hear.

Several weeks later – yes it is now October – we said how’s it going, they said we’re getting there. We said how’s it going now? They said we’re 85% there, the gearbox is working, except the computer doesn’t like it and goes into ‘limp’ mode so we need to trick it but we’re not sure how. We said let’s try to find out, they said yeah.

We said we need to set off to return to Ecuador from Chile now, but we don’t want to bother if it’s not fixed yet, they said er….. we said what? They said good news is we think we have a solution to the computer problem, but we need a part from Germany to make it work, should be ready about 6 November, we said Oh For Fuck’s Sake! We said we’re going to Bolivia now then, cos we can’t be arsed to hang around in Ecuador and then be really late starting our job, they said okay.

Friends came and went...

Friends came and went…

We said is the part there yet? They said no. We said is it there yet, cos we’d quite like to pick up the van around Christmas. They said we got the part and put it in. We test drove it and the computer problem was solved, we said brilliant!! They said we drove it and drove it, up hill and down dale, and it was going like a dream, we said brilliant. They said we declared it ready, we said seriously? They said but then the boss insisted we take it for an even more extreme mountain drive, he said there’s no point in giving it to them if it can’t cross the Andes, we said that sounds sensible. They said we took it up there and some of the pinions broke during the test, it seems the engine is just a fraction too powerful for the gearbox we’ve got, we said sigh….. They said arghhhh! We said ditto.

We said maybe we need to give up now, they said maybe. We all slept on it. Jeremy said I’ve looked into it again and maybe we need to find a solution in Europe, there’s this guy in Germany who I think can help, they said send us the details. We said we’re not going to be able to come and collect it at Christmas as planned, are we? They said no.

They said the guy in Germany can provide all the exact parts to put this together, we said super! They said the problem is all the parts are used, and it’s illegal to import used parts into Ecuador, we said we know, we’ve been here before, they said it wouldn’t be easy to clean up this whole kit and make it look like new, we said what now? They said we don’t usually do this but we’ll contact ‘a bloke’ in Colombia and see if we can send them there, then we’ll (illegally) drive them over the Colombia-Ecuador border, we said that sounds like just the kind of excitement we need.

We said what the frock is happening, please will you reply to our messages. They said the problem is the guy in Colombia wants far too much money to receive this package, so we’re still looking into how we can do this, we said we’ll contact some people in Colombia too then, they said thanks. We said we’re now in danger of missing our final, last-chance, Ecuador visa expiry date at the end of February 2014, which is not something we really could have envisaged last April, they said neither did we…. They said the latest gearbox should be despatched from Germany to Colombia on 8 January, we said better late than never.

Two weeks and hundreds of emails and phone-calls later they said thing is we got this guy to send it to Colombia, we paid him and got the tracking number. Then we went to Colombia to collect it and it wasn’t there. They said we called him and said WTF?  He said we had “taken too long to decide if we wanted it”. He is a (INSERT SEVERAL SWEAR WORDS) asshole. They said we have (INSERT SWEAR WORD) had it with this van, it is impossible, we cannot (INSERT SWEAR WORD) well do this any more, it is costing us a fortune in time and money and it’s costing you loads as well. They said we’ve tried everything to get VW to help us find the right parts but they say what we’re doing is impossible, that’s it, no more, sorry.

We said maybe this really is over now. Maybe it’s time to come up with a whole new plan, abandon the van – which we cannot legally sell in, nor remove from, Ecuador – and buy a different car. We said the logistics of all of that are a total nightmare but let’s make a list of options and look for other vehicles.

A few days later… we said are you really telling us you are giving up, even though we all still believe there should be a solution out there? They said, well….maybe we spoke in anger. We said we’ll look for a better contact in Europe, they said thanks. We said Jeremy has been back to all his geeky contacts online, and beyond, in fact he has been living on the internet for days, and we think a guy in Canada that Jeremy has found, has found in a guy in Holland who can come up with the goods, they said really? We said we hope so.

We had some freelance work to do to help offset our van expenses

We had some freelance work to do to help offset our van expenses

Holland Guy said I’ve looked into it and there’s only one manual gearbox in existence that you could use for your conversion, and I can get hold of it plus the other bits you’d need, we said you’d be the first person to have actually been able to name the parts we need – including VW, who have washed their hands of this from the start and are complete, utter bastards – and it sounds too good to be true but we’ll go with it. A squillion emails and several weeks later we said that’s all the parts ordered then, it’s February now so we better get back to Ecuador and sort this out.

We got back to Quito and said where are the parts, they said still stuck in customs, we said that sounds familiar. A week later, nearly mid-March, we said where are the parts, they said still stuck in customs, we said the longer this goes on the more likely we are to snap and stab someone [we didn’t really say that second bit out loud].

We said where are the parts, they said they all have to have a physical inspection by customs and if they find the two (illegal) used parts that you’ve hidden in there, the whole shipment will be confiscated, we said we know and it’s kind of keeping us awake at night, they said let’s hope they don’t spot it, we said yes let’s hope that.

They said all the parts have finally been cleared by customs, we said YAY!!!, that was close, they said you were lucky. We said all we have to work out now is whether these parts really do fit our van, as claimed, they said let’s hope so, we said yes let’s.

They said we’ve received all the parts and they look good, for the first time it looks like the parts are correct, the Holland Guy really seems to know what he’s doing, we said phew. They said Holland Guy thinks this is the first time in the world this conversion has been done on your specific engine, we said that’s both strangely comforting and very scary, they said yeah.

Gearbox diagrams

Worse than your worst Ikea flatpack nightmare – the mechanic gets to work on assembling the new manual gearbox.

They said we’ve put the gearbox in and it fits – just, with a millimetre to spare – we said gulp, YAY!! They said we’ve had to make some adaptations but things are going well, now we just have to work out how to trick the computer, we said yeah we thought that might still be a problem. They said we’ve done it all and we’ve over-ridden the computer so we think it’s going to work, we said let’s hope so, they said yes let’s. They said the clutch cylinder that came from Holland is not working properly, but we’ve done a temporary fix, you can drive but should order a replacement asap, we said sigh.

They said we’ve taken it for a first test drive and everything was perfect, we said we refuse to believe it until we are actually driving that van away from the workshop, they said fair enough. They said come down and take a drive with us, we said that would be nice. We drive to the mountains and everything felt lovely, we said YAY! They said we just need to do some final checks and clean everything up and then you can come and collect it, we said we still can’t really believe it, they said believe it, you are so out of here, we said I bet you’re looking forward to that.

They said come and get it, it’s nearly ready, we said YAY! They said only problem is you can’t drive it til 7.30pm because number plates ending in ‘7’ can’t drive in the city on Thursdays, we said another three hours won’t kill us but it will still feel like the longest three hours of our lives, they said come back to ours for pizza then, we said okay. We said that was a hell of a year wasn’t it, they said yes it was really stressful, we said yeah. They said remember the day you asked us to destroy the van by dropping it off the lift, we said yeah, they said that was a really bad day, we said yeah it was. They said Jeremy was a genius for finding Holland Guy, and Holland Guy was a genius for finally getting to the bottom of it, we said yeah. They said did we mention that the automatic was the shittiest transmission we’ve ever seen and that VW refused to help us with part numbers for this job, saying that what we were doing was impossible, even though they actually manufacture the gearbox we eventually used? We said, yeah we are all agreed that they are evil, uncaring, cynical corporate whores, they said spot on.

We said thanks for the pizza, and everything, we’re off to get the van now, they said bye then, we said ciao.

—–

A FOOTNOTE TO EKEKO:

There’s another little strand to this story. Now, we’re not religious people, we’re not even that vague half-way house that some people describe themselves as – ‘spiritual’. But people change, and we’re now firm believers in the Andean god of abundance, Ekeko. We’re not trying to convert you. We’ll simply give you the facts.

Thanks mate.

Thanks mate.

If you’ve read the above transmission tragedy, you’ll know that we spent many months trying to track down a manual gearbox that would actually fit our van. No one seemed able to help, not even the people who made the van. Enthusiasts in the US tried to help – they were also looking for the same solution but couldn’t find the parts either. Towards the end of January things were looking very bleak indeed. The mechanic had given up and we were simultaneously looking for alternative vehicles and making a last-ditch attempt to ask our contacts for help with our van.

Meanwhile we were busy with volunteering in Bolivia and doing freelance journalism work. I’d been commissioned to write articles on the Alasitas festival in La Paz. The festival centres around the god Ekeko – people buy miniature versions of all the things they desire for the coming year, and ask Ekeko to make them come true. We were desperate enough to try anything. We bought a miniature VW and little driving licence, a mini passport and suitcase (representing travel) and had them blessed by a shaman.

The following morning I was in a cafe writing my Alasitas article, when Jeremy emailed me to say: “Trying not to get overexcited but…. just had an email from a parts supplier in Holland who says he can find us our gearbox.”

That Ekeko guy works fast, we said! Make of it what you will, but with that we were back in the game.

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There’s no place like home

8 Apr
We did it! Making it to Peru was a massive relief

We did it! Making it to Peru was a massive relief

The beach, Peru
[by Paula]

When we blogged last week, to say that our van was back in the game after 11 months off the road, we mentioned that we had another enormous challenge to face before we could really get back into the road trip part of this journey.

We’re over the moon to say that that hurdle has been cleared – we are safely in Peru and ensconced on a peaceful beach, living the van life again and re-acquainting ourselves will everything that is so liberating about having a house on wheels. After so long living in apartments, we thought it might take a while to adjust again to the limited space, but we’ve only banged our heads about 67 times each in the last week, so that’s going really well so far.

Unfortunately we can’t yet publish the full story about what we went through to get into Peru – that’s something we’ll have to save for another day and another country.

That aside, I’d love to tell you that the rest of our journey here from Quito was straightforward and incident-free. But would you really believe that?

Drinking champagne

A little champers moment after picking up the van

After picking up the van we spent a fun few days playing house with it and getting everything ready before our departure from the city. We set off at the crack of dawn, headed for the city of Riobamba, about 5 hours south of Quito.

About 4 hours and 45 minutes of that journey were joyous – driving through the Ecuadorian Andes with our new manual gearbox was like night and day compared with the hideous automatic transmission that had, at best, dragged the van kicking and screaming through Colombia’s highlands.

A few blocks from the campsite in Riobamba, we started to notice an ominous burning smell coming from the front of the van. Not good. As we pulled into the campsite and tried to park, Jeremy said: “Paula, I can’t get into any gear.” These are not words I ever want to hear again.

My brain quietly chanted ‘thisisnothappeningthisisnothappeningnothisisnothappening..’.

We popped the bonnet, releasing smoke and an acrid smell coming straight from the gearbox. Happily, after a short cooling period we managed to get into gear again and parked up.

The lovely campsite owner was offering advice about rubbing discs, just needing to regulate them, don’t worry ‘be patient’ you can find a mechanic tomorrow etc, but for the first few minutes it was all just white noise. We were in panic mode.

Non-starter

We were already aware that our clutch cylinder was a bit ropey – the one that arrived with the gearbox conversion kit was defective, and the Quito mechanics had done a fix on it. A new one had been ordered to be sent to us in Peru. We phoned our mechanic in Quito, Lothar, who urged us not to panic, it was probably something to do the cylinder but someone should be able to tweak it for us.

We found a mechanic on Monday morning who, at first, seemed gloomy about being able to access the right area to regulate the discs. “I might have to get another guy in to help me take the gearbox out,” he said. At that point I went for a long walk!

But after a phone conversation with Lothar, he found the way in and tweaked things to stop the discs rubbing.

“I really think this is going to be okay now,” he said. “Take it for a drive for a few hours, to places around the city, and if you smell burning again, come back tomorrow and we’ll look again.”

Van stopped at church

Nice church, not so nice that the van won’t start…

Hesitantly, we set off and drove to a little village about 30km away. No problems. We pulled in at a little church and had a look around. “Things feels good, let’s head on further,” said Jeremy.

We went back to the van. I turned the key. Click click, nothing. It was completely dead. This is NOT happening, I said. Probably the battery, we said. We called over a local family visiting the church and asked them to jump start us. Sure, they said. Click click, nothing.

“It’s not the battery, must be something else,” they said. They offered to come back with a mechanic in a hour.

It felt like a long hour in the hot sun. Really, were we ever going to get out of Ecuador?!

The mechanic arrived. “Oh” he said, “this car is gasoline, but I’m a diesel mechanic, sorry.” I made a growling sound. He started to have a fiddle around anyway, and declared it was “something electrical”.

“Let’s try push-starting it,” he said. Exciting, we thought – we couldn’t have done that with an automatic!

We pushed, and it sprang to life. Hurrah! They drove us to a car electrician in the city. “He’s the best,” they said, “if he can’t sort you out, no one can”. I thought ‘please don’t say that…’

Ten minutes and $5 later, a loose cable was re-connected and we were off!

So far so routine, but our still-raw paranoia about breaking down meant that every set-back felt like a disaster in the moment.

We flopped into our chairs back at the campsite – what a day.

Next morning we decided to head off with confidence, and drive south for a few hours to see how we felt. It was a beautiful, and calm, drive to the gorgeous railway town of Alausí. We were still like a couple of meerkats, popping our heads up at every perceived noise or smell, but all was well.

We explored the little town, which is sliced in half by Ecuador’s famous highland railway line. Brightly painted houses and a pristine square make it seem almost like a life-sized version of a model railway village. We ate chicken soup in the market, then decided to push on. Alausí’s steep streets were the perfect test for the gearbox, which coped admirably.

That afternoon we had one of those lucky finds – with no plan of where we might sleep, we happened across a slightly unpromising-looking sign for a ‘pueblo turistico’. We drove down a steep track, which ended at a new restaurant and little trail leading to an incredible mirador overlooking the famous engineering feat that is the ‘Devil’s Nose’ – a series of steep railway switchbacks cutting across the mountain before descending to a little station in the middle of nowhere.

Devil's Nose (Nariz del Diablo)

We camped above the mirador overlooking the famous Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo).

They had the perfect sheltered car park for us to camp in, and to top things off a train appeared just as we were climbing down the trail to look at the railway. We got some incredible views before the clouds started swirling through the valley and settled eerily for the night.

With no charge for the camping we decided to support this fabulous community project by buying a meal in the restaurant, which had a chef who’d worked in London for 10 years – it was $3 for a three-course dinner!

We drank our morning tea at the mirador the next morning, and really felt like we were on the road again. As we left the pueblo, we picked up a series of locals who were hitching between villages on our route – it’s an accepted way to get around and we never want to seem like grumpy gringos who just travel in a bubble of our own.

We started to hear a worrying clunking noise – it sounded like an innocuous banging of metal, but I refer you to my earlier comments about paranoia. We pulled in to get it checked out – just a broken screw on the metal guard under the van, which has been in and out like a jack-in-the-box over the last year. Keep calm and carry on!

Things continued to go smoothly. It felt like a major milestone to get to the southern city of Cuenca – our last major stop before the border, a place where we’d already spent a lot of time, and where we’d meet our friend Jess again before (hopefully) leaving Ecuador for good.

We camped in a great city farm and had a good night out in town and then brunch at the van with Jess the next day. She seems to have suffered every stage of the van saga along with us, so it was really special to be able to have her round for a cuppa, to see for herself that the van was back and really did exist.

We did some final planning and set off for the border at first light on Friday. It was by far the most nerve-wracking day of our trip so far, for reasons we’ll write about later.

That evening we pulled into a sublime beach campsite in northern Peru, as a red-hot sun was dropping from the sky in the way that is so synonymous with the Pacific coast – we were happy, relieved, adrenaline-fuelled and ready for a drink.

For the next few weeks we’ll hang out in hammocks, sort out the remaining loose ends with the van, go off wandering and sit out the chaos that is Semana Santa (Easter) in Latin America.

But mostly we’ll just enjoy being back home.

Days: 918
Miles: 18,121
Things we now know to be true: Panicking is unhelpful.

—–

A FEW MORE PICS FROM OUR EVENTFUL WEEK:-

 

The post you thought we’d never write

28 Mar
Van ready to go

Safe to say that mechanic Juan Carlos and owners Lothar and Lothar Ranft don’t ever want to see us again, nor us them.

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

We’re back on the road again. No, we can’t believe it either! After 11 months off the road, the van is finally purring away happily and getting ready to turn south again.

Having our home back is an incredible feeling. We’ve had some great digs while waiting, but we’d be lying if we said we hadn’t missed it.

Some aspects of the last year have been supremely stressful – the worst thing was not knowing how or when the saga would end. But our stoppage also led to some changes of plan that we find it impossible to regret, not least our unforgettable time in Bolivia.

You might wonder how the feck it could take 11 months to repair a van. That’s something we’ll be writing more about very soon. Suffice to say that – as far as we have been told – this is the first time in the world an automatic-manual gearbox conversion has been done on our specific model, year and engine-type. If anyone knows otherwise, we’d be happy to hear it.

It was bloody difficult for all concerned, but we’ve done it. Our mechanic’s wife waved us off last night with particular gusto.

For now we have another enormous challenge to face before we can truly relax and enjoy the ride, and we sincerely hope that very soon we can report good news on that front too.

Thanks to family, friends and fellow travellers for your concern and encouragement, now let’s hit that road!

Strictly come dancing

24 Feb

Dressed up for Fiesta of Mallasa

Cuenca, Ecuador
[by Paula]

A great many things have happened on this trip that could not have been predicted. In fact, the majority of happenings were not foreseen, but some are more surprising than others.

So when I was standing watching Jeremy change from his jeans and t-shirt into an 11-piece Bolivian dancing outfit, including big flappy woolly Andean trousers, poncho, a belt adorned with bells, wooden platform shoes with spurs and an outrageously camp hat, I thought: “Yeah, this is definitely right up there with all the other ‘things-we-didn’t-see-coming’.”

I wasn’t doing too badly myself, with my wool dress and pinny, headband and wide-brimmed sombrero flowing with multi-coloured ribbons.

In the way that only they can – quietly unassuming, yet without options for refusal – our Bolivia hosts Emma and Rolando had persuaded us to take part in the traditional Pujllay dance at the local town festival in Mallasa. Of course we wouldn’t have refused. It was a privilege and a one-off chance to experience a culture from within a small community, with friends who could show us the ropes. Obviously it was also a chance for some public humiliation, and who would pass that up?

It was a serious business – rehearsals began about two weeks before, and took place in the street. Different dance groups vied for space in Mallasa’s Calle 5, while the music belted out of a PA system dragged out onto the street corner. Along with the other gringo volunteers working for Emma and Rolando’s projects, we shuffled around trying to look like we knew what we were doing.

Not only was the festival a large parade for the spectator’s enjoyment, it was a dancing competition and source of community pride. At the very least we had to aspire to avoid totally embarrassing Emma and Rolando in front of their friends and neighbours.

Pujillay men's dance

The men had to leap around for hours wearing wooden blocks on their feet.

On the night before the festival we all gathered to view our costumes and learn how to put them on – they were highly valuable and, as is tradition, the organisers (chosen each year from the community) had virtually bankrupted themselves to pay for the event and after-parties.

In the Pujllay, the men have to wear rather intimidating wooden blocks on their feet and jump around warrior-like, their heavy spurs jangling. They strapped them on and had a first ‘shoe rehearsal’. The overwhelming consensus was that someone would break an ankle before the day was out.

Despite some nasty weather in the fortnight running up to the event, we all gathered on Sunday afternoon in unbroken sunshine. Bolivians have an uncanny knack for predicting the weather, and we had been assured “it never rains on fiesta day”. They were right, again.

The streets were lined with spectators, food vendors and crates of beer for sale. We had a swift cold one to garner ourselves, lined up in our groups as the band got going behind us, and set off down the main street.

Mallasa is not a large town – in bigger fiestas in La Paz, dancers will parade for miles – but we were pretty hot and exhausted by the time we reached the judges’ platform, yet we were only half way. We smiled like mad and tried to look proficient. It was amusing to watch people’s faces as we swooshed past – there go the gringos!

Every now and again I craned my neck to see the men’s group dancing behind us – occasionally seeing Jeremy’s hat bobbing around at several inches higher than everyone elses.

Jeremy enjoys a relaxing beer after the dancing ends.

Jeremy enjoys a relaxing beer after the dancing ends.

The atmosphere was fantastic. People handed drinks to the dancers, and when we reached the end a crate was bought and guzzled in the street. We had our first opportunity then to watch some of the other groups coming past, doing different dances in a whole array of outlandish costumes.

Then we were off again! One of the best moments was dancing back through the town to make our entrance at the after-party. I temporarily joined the men’s group, stomping through the now darkened streets with increasing velocity, no doubt spurred on by the promise of more alcohol at the party. We made a loud and energetic entrance, congratulated ourselves and settled in for the free bar.

In the preceding weeks I had been doing some research for a BBC article about Bolivia’s ‘cholitas’ (en español)  – indigenous/mestizo women who dress in fascinating and distinctive outfits of bowler hats, layered skirts and shawls. One of their noticeable characteristics is that, although formidable in some ways, they are quite reserved people, not given to easily trusting strangers or behaving brashly in public. However, Emma had assured me that a Bolivian party would certainly involve a host of drunken cholita revellers letting their hair down. I found this very hard to imagine.

But within a couple of hours, a whole gaggle of cholitas – resplendent in their identical pink fiesta outfits – had dragged Jeremy and I onto the dancefloor. As we did a kind of conga around their crates of beer, swigging from plastic cups as we went, I thought: “Yeah, this is right up there with all the other ‘things-we-didn’t-see-coming’.”

Don't be fooled. These elegant cholitas got stuck into the beers later.

Don’t be fooled. These elegant cholitas got stuck into the beers at the party later.

The festival was particularly special for us because we would be leaving the village in two weeks. We’d made the decision to return to Ecuador for reasons of an expiring visa and to, erm, Sort Out Our Van. For anyone who has – understandably – lost track of our mysterious campervan, it’s still in Quito and has been for many many months.

There will be more on that later, but we had to get back there and either see through a final attempt to fix it, or make alternative arrangements.

Suddenly it felt like we had a lot to do before we left. We had an unusually large volume of freelance journalism work to do, and there were a lot of jobs to complete on Emma and Rolando’s soon-to-be-opened campsite, including marketing and publicity materials. Jeremy designed leaflets and a logo, and we twiddled and tweaked the website. Signs were designed and made, and we started putting the word out to other websites and blogs.

We met our very capable replacements on the project, Don and Rochelle, and managed to find time for some important training, such as How To Drink A Lot of Wine.

On our last evening, Rochelle – who claims to normally be a light drinker – declared that she had “never left our house sober”.

Our work in Jupapina was done. It was time to move on.

The Mendoza-Donlans gave us a fondue farewell.

The Mendoza-Donlans gave us a fondue farewell.

A series of farewells only served to underline how many lovely friends we’d made – to mention but a few; the entertaining and ever-helpful Anita, Anahi and Raquel from Up Close Bolivia, our housemate Naomi – who broke her cooking embargo to make us a delicious Spanish meal before we left – and Verity, who arrived in January and soon sniffed out our shared love of food, wine and chat. Sadly, by this time Alison and Doug had return to the frozen north (Canada) and could only weep at the thought of our Singani cocktails on the terrace.

Clara and Geovanna, who worked in Emma and Rolando’s house, cooked hearty and delicious lunches for us every day and listened patiently to our bad Spanish.

And of course Emma, Rolando, David and Bell, who took us out for a sublime palpatation-inducing fondue lunch before we left. They also hosted a big gathering of all the volunteers, plus Clara and Geovanna and their families – with chori-pan (barbequed sausages on bread rolls) and choclo (sweetcorn) and lots of lovely speeches!

Facing a 30-hour bus journey to Lima, Peru, at 8am on Sunday, we made the sensible decision to have a night out with Emma and Rolando the evening before we left. “It won’t be a late one,” said Emma.

As we crawled into bed just before 2am, I thought: “I definitely saw that coming.”

Days: 875
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 9,909
Things we now know to be true: If a cholita tells you to dance, you dance.

BUMPER CROP OF PHOTOS IN TWO GALLERIES BELOW – CHOLITAS, PLUS THE FESTIVAL AND GOODBYE JUPAPINA. Many thanks to Rochelle and Verity for taking lots of photos for us on fiesta day.

——-

CHOLITAS

——-

FESTIVAL OF MALLASA AND GOODBYE JUPAPINA

Plan Z

13 Sep
Jeremy and Paula, Lima, Peru

Backpackers again (for now)

Arequipa, Peru
[by Jeremy]

Travelling South America’s coastal highways and precipitous mountain roads, you experience a series of dizzying twists and sharp turns. Our own journey over the past few weeks has been more a series of switchbacks, diversions, u-turns and a few dead-ends.

Next week we are meeting Paula’s parents in Chile. We are in Peru. Our van is in Ecuador. Bugger.

But it’s not all been mechanical woes, switching from plan A to B to C to Z, laughing, crying and occasionally (okay, often) swearing in the face of stupefying bureaucracy. Oh no. There’s been dogs in comas, hospitalisation, some killer cocktails – and a rather tasty beef wellington. Take that Life Remotely! 🙂

Beef Wellington

We were all excited to have an oven in the apartment – cue the Beef Wellington experiment.

We left off our last posting having invited fellow overlanders Doug and Marcia – and their canine companion Maddie – to come and live with us for a while in Quito. To say it was an eventful few weeks is an understatement. First Maddie went for her routine blood tests, had an allergic reaction to the drugs, and fell in to a coma. Doug and Marcia spent 48 hours sleeping in the car park at the vet, helping to nurse Maddie back to full health. They succeeded.

Then Doug went kayaking in Tena, got an ear infection, did a passable impression of the elephant man as the side of his face swelled up, and ended up in hospital on a drip. He also survived – at least he was doing fine last we heard.

Meanwhile we were facing battles of our own. Picture the scene. It’s Wednesday night, the van has successfully completed a 100km road test, we are packed, we cook up a final meal, crank up the music and dream of parts beyond Ecuador. And so to sleep, perchance to dream.

At 7am. ‘Er, Jeremy’. What? ‘There is an email from the mechanic’. Great, what time can we pick the van up? ‘Er….’.

On its final road test the transmission had lost pressure, seized up again and come to rest on the other side of a major road while the mechanic was trying to do a u-turn.

Shall we unpack now or later?

And so, faced with yet another big delay in being able to leave with the van, and with just two days left on our visa and permit, we again had to brave the labyrinthine complexities of migration and customs officialdom. Customs, in their usual helpful and charming manner, met with us, looked out of the window while we explained our predicament and then told us there was nothing they could do to help us extend our car permit. They could, however, help us by issuing more fines.

Guac, salsa, margarita

Guacamole, check. Salsa, check. Margarita, boom.

Sod that. Thanks, but no thanks.

Migration were slow but helpful, and we are now the proud owners of a shiny new 6-month Ecuadorian visa. Next stop, residency.

Having started out with Doug, Marcia and Maddie living with us, they took over the apartment rental and we executed our own u-turn and began living with them. Same flat, same rooms just their cocktail glasses in the cabinet instead of ours.

The good thing about sharing a flat with the Burly Canadian and a southern US live-wire is that they know how to live. The Marciarita, her own unique take on a Margarita, is enough to knock you off your chair or get you up dancing.

Meanwhile Marcia’s sangria, laden with mango, raspberries and blackberries, is deceptively fruity when in fact its main ingredient is lashings of alcohol. Add to the mix their signature chips, salsa and guacamole, throw in an experimental beef wellington (rather good, even if we do say so ourselves) and some fish tacos and you have yourselves the antidote to all your problems.

Well, almost. For us, there were a few little matters to resolve – a 25,000 word report to edit on a tight deadline, and having to make some big decisions about the van (in case there is one person left who is not completely bored by our technical issues, we’ve now opted to ditch the troublesome automatic transmission and convert it to a manual).

Oh, and we had arranged to meet family in northern Chile in a few short weeks, but we were without the van and 5,000km away.

No problem. There are buses aren’t there?

“Give me a shove. There, there, you can zip it up now.”

In a retro move, armed with backpacks, a tent and a bus timetable, we finally said a (temporary) farewell to Quito. Nine hours later we hit Cuenca in southern Ecuador, called in for a few drinks with our friend Jess, awoke the next morning for the cross-border journey to the buzzing beach resort of Mancora, and the first opportunity to use our new tent.

Now, that’s it pitched, all that needs to happen now is for me to get in. There we go. No, don’t zip the door up, my head’s in the way. Hang on. If I just curl this leg over this backpack and move that arm here I can crawl down a little more. Give me a shove. There, there, you can zip it up now.

Yes, our tent is very small and provides much amusement whenever I have to get in – or out. Not for me, obviously.

After three nights of contortions it was a delight to finally get on a night bus to Lima and a uber-comfy bed-seat. I wake up in the middle of the desert. It’s spectacular. Paula enjoys the view but not half as much as the in-bus snacks of dinner and breakfast.

We must stop meeting like this. In Lima we stayed a couple of nights with our friends from the road Andy and Dunia who we’ve met four times now and who, rather handily, are looking after a B&B for a few months. They took us out for our first Pisco Sours – delicious. I can’t wait to see what Marcia does to one of those!

Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa, Peru

Visiting Arequipa’s Santa Catalina Monastery in the evening is really atmospheric.

Lima is always foggy and grey, they warned us. We enjoyed two days of lovely sunshine and blue skies, taking in the sights of the old city.

Then it was back to the night bus. This time for another 18 hours, through the desert to Arequipa. The final approach to this city at the edge of the Andes is amazing. Stark but beautiful desert scenery, surrounded by snow-capped 5000m-plus volcanoes. We’ve had a couple of great days here with its warm sunshine, pristine white colonial buildings and breathtaking backdrop – and alpaca steaks for dinner.

But there’s no time for just enjoying yourself when you have deadlines. Tomorrow morning we will finally head off to Chile to begin the last leg of our epic three-country dash to meet the family.

And the van? Like Maddie and Doug, we expect, it will make a full recovery soon.

Days: 673
Miles: 17,551
(not including the approx 10,000km round trip we are now doing by bus)
Things we now know to be true: Once you’ve tried a Marciarita, life can never be quite the same again.

Here’s some more photos from the last few weeks:

Getting a life

18 Aug
Skate park, Quito

Weekend park life in Quito is busy and atmospheric.

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

We’ve been getting a life recently. The more and more time we spend in Quito, the more it starts to feel normal to be living here.

When we finally get back in the van there’s going to have to be a period of re-adjustment, but it’s one we’ll embrace with joy. We can’t wait to really be home.

Sangolquí, near Quito

Festival in Sangolquí, near Quito

In the meantime, we’ve moved to a big new sunny apartment in Quito and have loved having lots of space to cook and entertain.

We began with a quiet week of finishing off our writing project – a report for a British NGO – which will be returned to us for editing in a week or so.

While that was going on we heard that we had lost our appeal against the customs fine we lamented in our previous blog post. It was really annoying but not very surprising. We took more advice and the conclusion was that we would never beat the system, as that required someone taking responsibility for wiping our fine. After much deliberation, and with a heavy heart, we decided to suck it up, pay the money and move on. We got the new vehicle permit and were finally completely legal again!

El Panecillo, Quito

City tour with Linda and Aron, ending with a climb to El Panecillo for a view

Soon after we were visited by Californians Aron and Linda of Andamos de Vagos, who were partially responsible for the first hangover I have suffered in ages. We gave them our little tour of old Quito and a couple of days later waved them off in their VW Westfalia, with hopes that we’d catch them up somewhere down the road.

Before long George and Teresa, of Road Adventure turned up for a few days. A definite highlight was the moussaka they cooked for us – a recipe from George’s home country of Bulgaria that was comfort food at its absolute best. While they were there, Marcia, Doug and their lovely dog Maddie – who are part of travelling collective Southern Tip Trip – arrived in their Sprinter van! Doug, and his friend Mr Glen Fiddich, were wholly responsible for the first hangover Jeremy has suffered in ages.

Dinner with guests, Quito

George’s Bulgarian moussaka was the star of the show.

It’s been great for us to have a busy house and a social life again.

We’d never met any of our guests before they came to stay, but most overlanders are pretty good at staying connected online through blogs, forums and Facebook. We manage, more or less, to keep track of each other and try to meet up where possible.

It’s not a complete coincidence that so many people are passing through Ecuador now. This small but steady flow of road-trippers is the 2013 ‘batch’ of travellers aiming to arrive in Argentina for this summer in the southern hemisphere.

That was originally our plan too, but after our little unexpected stay in Ecuador, we’ve decided that trying to get to the southern tip for this Christmas – while definitely achievable – will feel like too much of a rush for us. We’ve become meandering travellers, and we’d like to keep it that way.

La Ronda, Quito

La Ronda has been extensively refurbished and has cafes, bars and live music venues open in the evening.

So we’ve made a bit of a radical change to the so-called schedule. We’ll write more about it soon, but if everything goes to plan we’re going to be volunteering and living in Bolivia for up to six months from November. Watch this space.

Meanwhile we had the familiar rollercoaster ride of bad-news-good-news about the van repairs – a saga that we hope will end pretty soon.

We’ve had the time and space recently to think a little more about our future plans, the way we want to shape this journey and what we want to make of the opportunity. We’ve added a Frequently Asked Questions page to the blog which talks about some of those things, as well as a few of the practicalities that we often get quizzed about.

There’s one thing we’ve realised in recent months – we are very lucky that we have the flexibility to take a few curve balls whenever they come.

And when they do, we just have to put some temporary roots down and get a life.

Days: 647
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: Quito’s a place we could live.

Below is a large-ish slice of Quito life, in pictures. Click on any image to open it as a slideshow.

Chasing robbers

22 Jul

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been chasing two types of robbers.

The first, Ecuadorian customs, we are trying to outwit using the powers of logic, justice, and tenacity.

The second, an actual daylight robber, we chased off a bus, down the street, then pinned against a wall before handing her over to the police.

The latter may have been far less dignified, but it worked.

Latin American Monopoly

Let’s hope we don’t end up going directly to jail for not paying our customs fine.

The former – our fight with customs – was borne out of our attempts to make ourselves legal in Ecuador again, which we blogged about last time. Because of further delays with our van repairs we had run out of time on both our tourist visas and the permit for our van, which is issued by customs and only allows a foreign car to be in the country for three months.

At the 11th hour we’d been told by customs that we could not renew the car permit until we first had valid visas. So we made a plea to the director of migration to get a special 45-day visa to tide us over. It worked, and all the staff in migration were so helpful and understanding they even expedited the process and got us a super-fast one in two days.

We travelled back to customs, clutching our shiny new visas and feeling pretty chuffed about our success.

“Look Mr Customs officer!” we said, “we have new visas and got them really fast, just for you”.
“That’s great,” he said, “we can give you a new car permit. But now you are late, so all you have to do is pay the $1,000 (£650) fine that built up while you were sitting in the queue at the visa office for two days.”
“Erm, let’s think.” We thought for a moment. “No, we don’t think that’s fair, because we came here and applied for the permit extension SIX days ago, before it expired…”.

“The first I knew… was turning around to hear Jeremy going utterly berserk at the woman. They were wrestling over our iPad.”

This was the rather tense beginning of an excruciating eight-and-a-half hour day at the customs office – arguing, waiting, refusing to leave until we’d been heard. They just kept insisting we pay the fine, and that we sign a form to say we’d been notified of our transgression. We refused. Not only could we prove we’d informed them in plenty of time about our complete inability to take the car out of the country on time, one of their officers had actually travelled to the mechanic and inspected the broken van 3 days before our permit expired.

The useless manager who was dealing with us was in over his head. The fine was “on the computer” which made it irreversible, he said. The computer was apparently in charge. We felt sure they had made several errors with our case, but hell was going to freeze over before he admitted that and became responsible for wiping a potential $1,000 windfall off their books. He eventually agreed to bring us a letter explaining both the ‘transgression’ and our right to appeal.

Paula at customs office, Quito

Don’t think much of the customer service at the customs office.

After keeping us waiting for hours, at 5pm all the staff upped and left. We sat waiting alone. Useless Manager still hadn’t appeared. We waited. Then suddenly he shot out from behind us and bolted for the door – I mean, he was literally running like a hare. We shouted after him, and he gestured that he had to catch a bus. If we hadn’t been in such a foul mood, it would have been hilarious.

We waited another full hour before someone turned up with our letter and explained what we had to do.

We spent several days taking advice and composing a huge appeal letter, in Spanish, and all the documents for evidence.

Meanwhile we had a very welcome visit for a few days from Kiwi overlanders Will and Rochelle of Kiwi Panamericana who were passing through on their way north to Colombia. We enjoyed a few beers and some food while swapping travel tips and mechanical anecdotes, as they’ve also had their unfair share of things breaking on their car.

Monday morning we had one final chat with a lawyer we’d met, who also happens to be an exiled Chilean journalist living in Quito, and decided everything was ready to head off to customs with our appeal.

We jumped on a packed bus and stood in the aisle, rammed up against our fellow passengers. A man and woman next to us were behaving a bit oddly, and we exchanged some quiet words about whether they were up to something. We both had our bags clutched tightly to our chests, as everyone does on the buses here, and Jeremy was keeping a close eye on this woman who kept fiddling with her shawl and bumping into him.

As the bus pulled in at a stop, she pushed past him to get off. Amazingly, he caught a glimpse of our red iPad cover wrapped inside her shawl, and made a lunge for it.

The first I knew of anything going on was turning around to hear Jeremy going utterly berserk at the woman. They were wrestling over our iPad, and he was bellowing directly into her face. WTF?! He grabbed the computer off her and was shouting at the top of his voice as she tried to get out of the bus and away from him.

They both bundled off the bus, and I followed, grabbing the woman by the clothes.
It’s hard to remember every detail now, but there was loads of shouting. Jeremy then looked down and realised she had slashed through the side of his bag with a knife and – despite his being ultra-aware and holding on tight to it – had managed to take the iPad out without him realising.

Jeremy's slashed bag

Jeremy’s slashed bag.

In all the commotion outside the bus the robber slipped out the side of the platform, which in Quito are like covered train station stops. We suddenly realised she might have something else out of our bags – we were carrying our passports and documents because we needed everything for our trip to the customs office.

Jeremy was shouting for the platform guard to call the police as we quickly tried to check what else might be gone.

“She’s still there!” she shouted, pointing to the robber outside on the street. She opened the ticket gate for us and we catapulted out of there like greyhounds out of a trap. The woman saw us and started running like hell. Anyone who knows Jeremy knows that his loudest voice can be heard within about a 10-mile radius. He was continually yelling “call the police!” as we chased her down the busy road, and by the time we caught up with her a sizeable crowd had gathered.

I have always wondered how one might react in a situation like this. It’s amazing how fast you can run when you have adrenaline and indignation on your side. After the days we’d had, she picked the wrong time to rob us.

We caught her and got a firm hold, shouting god knows what, while she tried to deny doing anything. A bank security guard called the police and loads of people gathered round, making it impossible for her to escape. We established that nothing else had gone from our bags, but we still wanted to make a report to the police. A passerby came over with a mobile phone he’d seen her throwing under a car as we chased her – almost certainly stolen from someone else on the bus.

We really needed to get to the customs office – a two hour journey away – but didn’t want to let this drop.

After a few hours at the police station, they told us we could go, but that we would have to leave the iPad and bag behind for “a few hours” so they could be logged as evidence.

We did so and then headed off to customs to hand in the appeal, only having to make a minor fuss about some of our much-needed documents that Useless Manager had locked in his drawer before heading off on holiday. We left it in their hands, and were told we should hear the result of our plea in up to 10 days.

Will, Rochelle and Paula, Quito

Will and Rochelle come to stay!

What a day! It was a great novelty to have Will and Rochelle to come home to and tell the tale in our own language.

We currently have a large writing project to be getting on with, and were champing at the bit to get started. Just one last bit of bureaucracy to deal with the following morning, which was to collect the iPad from the police. Jeremy took the 45-minute walk there, only to be told property could only be collected after 2pm. He walked home, not a little annoyed.

We both returned there after 3pm, to be told we couldn’t collect our stuff because they had “lots of paperwork to do” and only certain people could sign the forms, blah blah. It all turned to white noise. Not for the first time that week, Jeremy went totally nuts. I was muttering “let’s try not get arrested….” but he’d gone. We were the victims, it was our property, we had volunteered it to them as our civic duty, and we wanted it back NOW please, he said, quite loudly.

Someone else came and explained that we should come back for the iPad “perhaps in a couple of days”. Whomever had told us something different was wrong, she said, adding that the police officers, in particular, had no idea how the system worked. That was the final straw.

How could we explain to them that we were now on something like our 13th day of dealing with incomprehensible bureaucracy?! We did not leave. We wanted our stuff back. We were promised a boss to speak to.

Eventually they sent one and, in all fairness, they sent the right guy. He was disarmingly camp, with a huge quiff. He spoke French-accented English, taught to him by his French grandmother. Basically he was an Ecuadorian version of ‘Franck’ the wedding planner from Father of the Bride.

Franck, Father of the Bride

Sending ‘Franck’ to help and calm us down was a stroke of genius.

“I hear you are very very angry,” he said.
We concurred.
“We have too much paperwork and not enough people to do it,” he explained, grabbing a mountain of files and desperately trying to find ours.

We understand this, we said. It is not exclusive to the Ecuadorian public services.  But it’s the time one wastes by being told a lot of bullshit that gets one’s blood pressure going through the roof. Why didn’t someone tell us at the beginning that this would take days?

“Oh, no one understands how it works,” said Franck, with a heavy sigh.

He typed furiously to get our paperwork done, frequently breaking off to talk to us about British accents, Scotland as depicted in Braveheart, and English stereotyping of the French.

“Just one thing”, he said. “Can you prove the iPad is yours? Do you have a receipt or something?”
“Are you (f*****)joking?” we asked. “Why would we be carrying a receipt? WE brought the iPad to you. WE caught the robber and gave her to the police. We left it here as evidence, only to help YOU.”
“I know. You were robbed yesterday, and now you feel like you are being robbed by the police!” said Franck… “So you don’t have a receipt or anything? We still have to prove that it belongs to you.”
***!!!!¥¥fcuuuuuuuuk^!
“Please don’t get angry. I believe you,” he said.
“Just BRING me my computer, and I will prove in 2 seconds that it belongs to me,” I said.

After several hours of form filling, stamping, signing and photocopying, at 7pm we retrieved our iPad from the vault.

“I hope we don’t get robbed on the way home,” I said, sending Franck into a renewed fit of giggles.

The project we’ve been working on for the rest of this week has been hard work but stimulating. It also makes a nice change, and is quite relaxing compared with chasing down robbers.

All we have to do now is wait to see whether it’s as easy to win victory over the Ecuadorian state as it is to chase down a slightly tubby bag slasher.

Days: 620
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: Sometimes you just have to make a scene.