This started out being a letter to my family, Amy, Sara, Mom and Dad. Halfway through I decided it turned into a blog post. So here it is. So, we are currently in Puno, Peru, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We will be here for a few days. We are doing laundry here (third time in South America) and other things. We got here yesterday after leaving Cusco because of terrorist threats against tourists and U.S. citizens. You may have seen Michelle’s post on Facebook. You can google the info if you didn’t. It was quite interesting. So we left Cusco and ended up spending the night at a hot springs we came across on our way to Puno, appropriately called Augas Calientes. It was very scenic and peaceful, much better then the gas stations (grifos) we usually stay at. I will add that we are camping at a very nice gas station in Puno. So much has happend on the trip, it is difficult to talk about it all. Before we headed on our futile drive to Cusco, we stayed in a town called Abancay for a week. We got there on a Saturday in the middle of a giant Carnaval parade. The highway was closed for the parade and we were stuck there for about an hour and a half, which was fine. Lots of people throwing water balloons at each other and spraying each other with shaving cream. This apparently is a South America Carnaval tradition. Most of us got hit with something by the end of the day and it was all good fun. We got through town and headed towards Cusco. It turned out we were having some kind of transmission problem. Driving back and forth and through across the Andes hauling an 8,000lb trailer is probably not recommended for our vehicle. We returned to Abancay to begin our weeklong stay.
Repair #1 was changing the transmission fluid and seeing if we could get the code read. The fluid was burnt, brown and stinky, not red like it was supposed to be. We got the fluid changed for $20. I would do it myself normally but it requires removing the whole transmission pan and disposing the old fluid. I didn’t want to have to figure out how and where to get rid of the old fluid, plus I usually get covered with the stuff and I didn’t want to do that either. For $20, it was a no-brainer. The new fluid cost $50 and was a pain to find. The guy changing the fluid for me has his friends drive me around to six different “lubricantes” stores looking for Ford tranny fluid, a rarity in Peru. After an hour and the second visit to one store, we found two gallons. I made the guys who drove me around take $4 for the effort. They didn’t want it until I suggested they buy themselves some beer. The scanner the mechanic had didn’t fit our old Ford computer plug, so no reading. The code light began flashing again on my way from the repair shop to our camping spot (a gas station, of course). Frustrating.
Repair #2 was installing new front brake pads. I had already put new pads on once in Ecuador. We had come down a massive 6,000 foot mountain decent (one of at least a dozen so far) and the pads were smoking and making the “change me now!” sound. We stopped at a gas station on the highway and Ryan and I took a taxi into the town another 1,000 feet down the hill. The driver drove us to a part store and by some miracle, there were Ford F-250/350 pads there for $20. I couldn’t believe it! Anyway, $20 pads wear out pretty fast in the Andes and it was time for a change in Abancay, especially with a new venture into and up and down the Andes ahead. In Ecuador there were lots of Ford trucks and cars, but Peru was different. I wouldn’t see a Ford for days, and when I did it was at least 40 years old. There were no pads in Abancay. In South America, that doesn’t matter. Why? Because you just go to the brake specialist who grinds off what ‘s left of your pad off the shoe (think asbestos, shirt over mouth in front of bench grinder job), puts on some nasty smelling glue, and cuts new pads to custom fit your shoe. Not only that, but Abancay, being at 8,500 feet on the way to Cusco, meant these guys knew brakes. At least 60% of the streets in this town were at least 20% grade, with several being well beyond 30%. San Francisco has NOTHING on this place. Now I have the best looking metallic pads I’ve ever seen on the van, at a cost of $28.
Repair #3 We have been having problems with the van starting and I couldn’t figure out why. Starting the van had devolved into getting out the generator, hooking up the battery charger and making several attempts to get her going every day. I was getting pretty frustrated. I had the starting system checked in Denver (a long time ago) and it was determined we needed a new alternator, which we got, but everything else checked out. The current theory was we needed new battery cables, or possibly new batteries (we take two). I yanked the 3 cables in question (one got replacedearlier, in Texas, I think) and went off to find new ones. I ended up with three guys back at the van who, after a few minutes, I learned didn’t understand my problem, even though “necesarios nuevos cables” was pretty straightforward, I thought. I’m pretty sure they were just trying to get some money out of me, so I sent them away. When I disconnected the one battery cable from the starter solenoid, I found that the generator/charger method of starting the car had taken its toll on the connection. The plastic cap on the solenoid where the cable connects had cracked due to too many starting attempts (I know, I know) and the bolt came right out of the unit. At this point, Repair #3 evolved into something else. Across the street from our gas station was a metal worker who we’ll discuss more in Repair #5. I asked him if he could recommend a good auto electronic repair person in Abancay. Yes, he said, see that aluminum door right up the street? He is there. I would have never known as there was no indication that any sort of shop was there at all. Just a lovely house where he had his shop and worked out of. I brought him the starter and the battery cables and found out my cables were just fine. Thus endth Repair #3. The starter, however, led to Repair #4.
Repair #4 So now the starter (actually the solenoid) was missing the threaded part to bolt the cable from the batteries on to it. I pretty much figured we would be stuck in Abancay for another week while a starter came in from I don’t know where. I took the thing to the aforementioned mechanic up the street and showed him the problem. It turns out this guy had been an automotive electrical mechanic for over 40 years and had saved EVERY spare piece to ever come off anything he worked on. He took the solenoid apart, which involved melting solder and such, and found in his box of like 200 plastic solenoid caps the ONE (and only) to fit my solenoid. Unbelievable! He bench tested the starter, which worked fine, and the solenoid, again fine, and put them back together. There was a problem. There was no electrical contact in the solenoid to fire the starter. He decided this was because the solenoid housing, a metal tube about 2 inches around and 4 inches long, was too long for the contact to be made with the new cap. He sent me back down the street to the metal worker we’ll talk about shortly to cut off a quarter inch from the tube. Two dollars to the metal worker and 30 minutes later, I was back. Everything got put together and checked out great! Back in action. Total cost to the electrical mechanic: $27.50
Repair #5 This isn’t actually a repair, yet. After the starter was reinstalled, it had a new problem where it would turn on and try to start the car even when the key was off and not even in the ignition! Hmmmmm. After all the other stuff that I had been dealing with up to this point, I was starting to lose it. I’m sure the family would attest to that. Michelle, ace researcher of the world, got on the internet and in a few quick minutes found some Q/A session where a guy with a Ford (maybe it was a Jeep) had the exact same problem. The suggested treatment was to whack on the starter relay with something and see if the problem went away. This was done and the car stopped trying to start itself! Hooray! Problem identified. However, now the car wouldn’t start. It turns out the relay was shot. In retrospect, this problem had been getting worse and worse for at least two years. There had been several time in Fairbanks when it was cold I would have to start the car by jumping the relay with a screwdriver, so this really isn’t any surprise. I yanked the relay and headed back to the electrical mechanic to see if he had one. Out he yanked a “Made in the USA” relay from another box of about 50 of them, tested it (it worked like a champ) and for $8 more, I had another relay. I have decided to keep using the old one with the screwdriver method and am saving the new (used) one as a backup for whatever reason I may need it.
Repair #6 As suspected, the batteries wouldn’t hold a charge. Two new batteries, the car starts like it was brand new, every time. $240 (Ouch!)
Repair #7 I had been having a problem with the weight distribution system hooking the trailer and van together. The brackets on the trailer where the bars mounted were getting mangled. I finally figured out this was because where the bars mount into the trailer hitch was wearing away. After 25,000 miles on the last trip (this unit was acquired in Cody, Wyoming after the one we had broke) and another 12,000 on this trip, I again was not surprised. To fix the problem I needed some metal added to the pivot points on the bars and the holes they went into on the hitch. Here comes the aforementioned metal worker. He fixed it all right up, turned them so everything was nice and smooth, all for a total of $20. Plus he had sent me to the electrical mechanic who saved my sanity. And he gave me a few beers. What a guy!
Repair #8 During all of this I decided it was a good time for an oil change. I had done this in Texas, about 6,000 miles ago, so it was really necessary for another 1500 miles, but what the heck, right? It turns out that with all the hauling the trailer up and down the Andes, the oil had started to break down. When I pulled the plug, a way too thick black sludge started to come out. Wow. No wonder the engine temp had been rising faster lately. Two gallons of oil and another $50 and The Blue Van is running like a champ.
All in all, we spent a week in Abancay for repairs with what was supposed to be a transmission fluid change. It ended up being so much more, but getting all this done in a small town where I can get around easily (unlike the axle fire in Lima) was worth the time and money. Knowing that all the problems I know of that had developed over the last few months have been addressed is a great feeling. Much less stress for me.