Tag Archives: Quito

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.

Advertisements

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.

Illegal aliens

7 Jul

DSC_0730

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

As of midnight tonight we will be – for the first time in our lives – so-called illegal aliens. We should be in Peru by now, but we are still in Ecuador, and have exceeded the 90-day time limits on both our tourist visas and car permit.

Unlike most other Latin American countries, those permits are not at all easy to extend and the rules are very strict. Until Thursday we really thought we were going to make it out of Ecuador in time – albeit in a last minute scramble – but found out that night that it wasn’t going to be possible because our van is still not repaired.

This is the first time I’ve written a blog post and then had to scrap it and start again, such has been the constantly-changing situation over the last few days. For weeks we have repeatedly been brought to the brink of getting back on the road, then hopes have been dashed.

Paula, en route to Cotopaxi

Has someone got hold of the other end? A mini rock-climb during an acclimatisation stop en route to Cotopaxi.

A friend said this week that our van seems to have a “flair for the dramatic”, and she’s spot on.

Tomorrow we will try to make a direct appeal to the head of migration services, and if we can’t resolve the situation we will be fined $350 for every day the car overstays its permit. Meanwhile the car sits partially disemboweled at the mechanic’s workshop – yesterday, for the third time, the transmission was removed and dismantled as they try to work out why it is burning up every time they fix and test-drive it.

It has been at the workshop for nearly 12 weeks now – why on earth is it all taking so long? It’s been an unbelievable saga of waiting for three separate batches of parts from the USA, plus delays, cock-ups, puzzles, procrastination and bad luck.

And that 90-day time-limit clock has really been ticking since we last blogged. At that time we were facing a third major delay and we made plans to ensure we’d see all that we wanted in Ecuador before we had to leave.

Since then we’ve been blown away by some of the most dramatic sights we’ve seen since we arrived, with the incredible wildlife of Isla de la Plata – the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ – and our pièce de résistance, Volcan Cotopaxi.

In both cases we enjoyed some incredible good-luck antidotes to what had seemed like a an unhealthy dose of bad vibes with the van.

After hearing of the latest delay while we were staying in an apartment in Cuenca, we decided that while we waited nothing could be more calming that heading out to the coast and searching for some boobies. The blue-footed booby is a bird that’s not only about the funniest, cutest thing you can ever hope to see, but has a name that makes it impossible not to make hilarious juvenile jokes at every opportunity.

Here’s a little taster of what we saw on the island.

From Puerto Lopez we took a boat to Isla de la Plata and set off on a little trail to spot the boobies, as well as ‘magnificent frigate birds’ with their unfeasibly large red inflatable throats. We’d heard the boobies were a guaranteed, easy spot but still couldn’t believe it when we saw the first couple. They were just hanging around on the path, so unperturbed that we had to walk around them. And it’s not a joke, they really do have very blue feet! They posed for photos, positioning their webbed flippers like little ballerinas and showing off with the occasional arabesque. Totally enchanting.

Further down the path we encountered trees and skies full of frigate birds, the males competing with each other to see who could most impressively balloon out their red throats to attract the females. Men, eh? They can never just rely on their scintillating personalities but have to wave appendages around to get attention.

After a chilly but successful snorkelling session some huge marine turtles came to visit our boat – another first for us – just before we set off back towards the mainland. It was the cusp of whale-watching season, and we were slightly hopeful of spotting a humpback en route. Expectations were low though, mostly because our record on coinciding with whale season is so abysmal it has become a bit of a standing joke.

Humpback whale, Ecuador

Somersault! Humpback whale, off Isla de la Plata, Ecuador

So we were really excited when we saw some huge fins flapping out of the water, followed by a glimpse of a humpback’s body on the surface. We were just congratulating ourselves on a great day, when the whale breached – a full-on flip out of the water in what felt like slow motion. Every boat passenger’s mouth was frozen into an ‘O’ for what seemed like ages. Somehow my arm took on a life of its own for a few nanoseconds and snapped a fuzzy photo without me even being aware of it.

We were beside ourselves – although we’d have loved to have afforded a trip to the Galapagos Islands, we felt really chuffed about what we’d seen for a mere $30.

We returned to Cuenca for a final weekend, which coincided with a local music festival and a rather drunken evening with Jess, a British teacher we’d met a few times while there. It was great to have a pal for a short while at least – thanks Jess.

It was time to head back towards Quito, to await the arrival of the latest parts and actually get the work done on the van – rebuilding the transmission, new shock absorbers and suspension repairs.

“Everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not yet the end.”

On the way back north we diverted to Latacunga, to plan a side trip to one of the most famous volcanoes in the world – Cotopaxi. The weather is very mixed at this time of year in Ecuador, which is just coming into the dry season in the mountains. We’d been dreaming of a perfect view of snow-capped Cotopaxi for ages, but knew that at that altitude you can be blanketed in clouds at a moment’s notice.

Without the van to camp in, staying at Cotopaxi’s hostels and lodges is a relatively expensive affair – we agonised over the cost but decided to splurge on a lodge with a choice location and view of the volcano. We didn’t regret it. It was a fantastically cosy adobe building with a huge log fire, squashy sofas and large glasses to fill with red wine. A wood fire was also lit every evening in our little cabin, which had a face-on view of Cotopaxi from the loft bedroom. We decided to take a guided walk to the glacier line of the volcano the next morning and get a close up.

That evening the clouds not only filled the sky but dropped right down to ground level. It was like someone had pulled the blackout curtains. Uh-oh, we thought.

Then we woke up to this.

Cotopaxi from our bedroom

Hello morning! The view of Cotopaxi from our cabin window.

We took 150 photos before breakfast, just in case the clouds came scudding in.

But there followed hours of unbroken sunshine and azure skies, which remained until we’d driven through the luminous landscapes of the paramo to 4,500m, hiked to a ‘refuge’ building at 4,800m for a hot chocolate and cake break, and then onto the glacier at over 5,000m (about 16,500ft).

It was intense – at that height every step on the soft volcanic ash and rock was a lung-buster, but we did it and were pleased to have kept up with the three 20-year-olds we were hiking with! Not bad for a couple of oldies. To be standing on the glacier felt… well, we were on the top of the world, as you can imagine.

Jeremy reaches the glacier, Cotopaxi

Made it! Cotopaxi’s glacier is at 5,000m.

We couldn’t believe our luck, it had been more than we’d wished for, and we were pretty adrenaline-charged until we suddenly dropped like stones into bed that evening.

We travelled back to Quito and rented an apartment for another week. With bated breath, we called the mechanic to get the latest. The parts were there, the transmission was rebuilt at the weekend, and testing would begin soon, he said. So far so good.

It was a nail-biting week, which ultimately ended with the mechanic hitting another big problem and us missing our deadline. We spent two days trying to navigate the resulting bureaucracy, to no avail as yet.

This latest hitch could stretch into weeks – fortunately Jeremy has just been commissioned to do a big project, something which will take both of us working on it to complete it on time. It will both occupy us while we wait and bring in some much-needed funds to the coffers.

But first, tomorrow we’ll do all we can to make ourselves legal again. And what is Plan B, I hear you ask? And of course we have one – we’re thinking we might apply for political asylum.

Days: 605
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not yet the end.”
[Cheesy line borrowed from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel]

CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO OPEN THE GALLERY AS A SLIDESHOW.

Big boys do cry

21 May

Laguna Quilotoa

Laguna Quilotoa, Ecuador


Quito, Ecuador
[by Jeremy]

It’s often said to be an endearing quality in a man to be able to show emotion, to be able to shed a tear. It’s not quite so endearing when the man in question is on all fours, clinging to a rock and blubbing uncontrollably.

I am that man.

Before setting out on what was to turn out to be one of the best – and when I say best, I really mean both best and worst – treks of our entire trip, we asked our fellow overlanders Thomas and Sabine what the hike around the Quilotoa volcanic lake was like. “It’s fine they said, a little narrow in parts”.

I’m not sure what it was that possessed them to forget to mention the 1000ft sheer cliffs dropping straight in to the lake that, legend has it, is so deep it has no bottom. That’s the problem with people who don’t suffer from vertigo – no sense of impending doom!

Tears and tantrums aside, the hike from our base in Chugchilán to Quilotoa was stunning, the views incredible and the experience – well, an experience.

Hike to Quilotoa

See that threadlike, impossibly narrow path going up the side of the valley? That was the easy bit.

It all started so well – a steep hour-long hike down almost 1000m in to the depths of an amazing canyon. It was at this point we realised why most hikers did the trek in reverse. What goes down must go up – or something like that. In front of us was five hours of continuous up from the valley floor.

With burning knees, and gasping for breath at 3,500m, we reached our first summit – the village of Guayama. Incredible views down in to the canyon, to the volcanoes and mountains surrounding us in every direction and back to the precipitous path we had just climbed were a just reward.

At least that’s the worst part over we reassured ourselves. Oh yeah? From there we climbed gently to the foot of the final ascent. It’s one of those that doesn’t look too steep when you are gazing at it from a distance. Close up it looked monstrous. With the sun burning down, the air thinning and our limbs growing ever more weary we climbed and climbed to the lip of the volcano.

At least that’s the worst part over, we reassured ourselves. Oh yeah? As we reached the lip of the crater we were confronted with – depending on your level of vertigo – the most astonishing view of Quilotoa, an awe-inspiring sight or a terrifying path to certain death.

“The rational part of my brain appeared to have gone on its own trek somewhere far away.”

My natural reaction when confronted with such terror is to cling on to rock, often grazing my face and hands in the process as I physically try to climb inside the rock face – and to stop the spinning, I find getting on all fours helps. It’s not a great look.

Normally this lasts for a while before Paula can connect with the rational part of my brain and persuade me that I can do it. And I do.

Maybe it was the thinness of the air, or the tiredness, but the rational part of my brain appeared to have gone on its own trek somewhere far away from here. Seconds of frozen inaction became minutes and minutes became an hour. Despite my protestations there was no way we could head back the way we’d come before dark – or physically manage it – so, rationally, I decided we could just sleep out in the open, at 3800m, in the freezing cold and rain. Well, it seemed rational to me.

It was only the chance arrival of some other trekkers and a local guide who persuaded us we could make the last part. Frankly, the guide just lied to me about how the last part wasn’t so bad.

Reaching Quilotoa

Relief that we’ve almost reached the end – but still not relaxed enough to stop hugging the rock.

As we edged along the crater rim even I had to admit the views were out of this world. I even relaxed enough to enjoy them! An hour later we arrived at the village of Quilotoa, found a lovely hostel with a log fire in the room, ate, drank and were merry.

We awoke to a beautiful sunrise, and were greeted not only by stunning views of the emerald green lake far below but also by grazing llamas as we hiked down to sit at the lakeside – pure tranquility. After a few more wobbly-kneed moments climbing back up to the rim we rested our aching limbs enjoying a coffee in the town square while waiting for the bus back to Chugchilán. You didn’t think we were going to hike back did you?

At least that’s the worst part over, we reassured ourselves. Oh yeah?
The moment the bus set off in the midst of a swirling mountain storm and the local passengers began crossing themselves, we knew we were in for a bumpy ride. The dirt road began to turn in to a stream in parts, a quagmire in others. After a terrifying 15 minutes slipping and sliding along the side of the mountain we finally came unstuck. Less unstuck, perhaps, than stuck. As the bus slid backwards towards the edge of the cliff and the passengers screamed, we became firmly lodged in deep, deep mud. As everyone disembarked and diggers helped to get the bus moving again we joined a group of locals who, in sheeting mountain rain, walked past the next couple of nerve-jangling corners and rejoined the bus where the road looked less likely just to plunge in to the canyon.

It’s one thing when I’m irrational about falling over a cliff, but when Paula heads to the front of the bus and sits at the open door so she can jump off before we go over the edge, I know I’m being rational. An hour, several bitten fingernails and a couple of near-death experiences later, as we round a corner, the bus gets stuck again. This time it looks pretty final (as we find out a few hours later, when they finally get the bus out of its hole, this happens pretty much every day). Just a couple of kilometres short of our destination we decide to cut our losses and walk the final stretch.

Over a cold beer and warm dinner we relive our last 48 hours. And like all such tales, in our recounting the fear diminishes, our bravery grows until in the end the tears, the tantrums, the terror are just footnotes in an otherwise spectacular hiking experience. The scars are emotional – except for a couple of grazed hands – but the memories are among the best of the whole trip so far. It’s funny how these things work out.

Leaving Quilotoa we head back to Quito to pick up the van which has had its new fuel injector put in.

View over Quito

Quito’s not a bad place to be stuck for a while.

At least that’s the worst part over, we reassured ourselves. Oh yeah?

As we arrive at the mechanics, expecting to drive away, our van is being pushed in to the workshop. What!? Several days and a good deal of stress later we get the dreaded news that part of our rebuilt transmission is buggered.

The mechanics are baffled as to how an 11-month-old transmission could break. Our complaint to VW has been duly filed – we’ll let you know what compensation they decide to offer us….

As ever when big things go wrong with your vehicle on a road trip you start to think the worst, get upset, make all kinds of alternative plans and generally go in to a bit of a panic. We did all of the above. Before we knew it we were sat having afternoon tea with an elderly ‘colonial’ British couple, agreeing to look after their five dogs and sprawling finca on the outskirts of Quito for five months, and I had applied for a job as a football reporter in Ecuador.

In the cold light of day, the house-sitting plans didn’t work out – sadly we couldn’t co-ordinate our dates and the news on the transmission, bad though it was, was not as catastrophic as first feared. We could get the spare parts, sort it out and be back on the road almost within our planned schedule. So we have rented an apartment in Quito and set about enjoying life in a city we have come to really love – oh, and doing some freelance journalism to pay for the parts.

Route planning

Setbacks often mean a bit of a change of plan…

At least that’s the worst part over, we are reassuring ourselves.

The silver lining in all of this is that we realise our journey is not one straight line (and not just because we get lost a lot) or just one adventure but a whole series of different adventures and experiences and if we have to stop for a while, have to get local jobs, have to change our plans we are ready, willing and able to do it.

After we’ve had a little panic, obviously.

Days: 558
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: “To want to tackle everything rationally is irrational.” [Ilyas Kassam – writer]