Monday, October 12, 2009

Auto Carma

Driving. It seems so easy. At some point I even had grandiose ambitions to drive a car all the way around the world... Then reality set in - cars tend to be [almost] nothing but trouble. I may have come to expect the mini to develop assorted suspension maladies on the unpaved super-highways of Mongolia, but here, back home in Seattle? In the midst of American civilization? Things should just work here, or, at least, be easy and straightforward to fix when they don't, right? Not so much... So, starting from the beginning:
  • I left Seattle in the middle of December and drove my car - the BMW, a convertible allergic to the cold, from Seattle down to San Diego. Along the way was the mountain pass in Oregon... which was busy getting covered in snow, so chains required. I'd never used chains before. I bought a set and tried to install. I failed. I had a chain wrapped around the rear axle of the car at one point... I was starting to think I may just be stuck in the middle of Oregon. Finally, a brilliant lady named Julia, working for the Oregon highway department, came to my rescue, installed the chains correctly and got me on the way across the border into California. I'd been aiming for San Francisco for the night - I ended up stopping in the first town past the Oregon border instead at about 5 in the morning. We'll call the town Mt. Shasta because it may actually have been Mt Shasta. Some five or six hours short of San Francisco. An inauspicious beginning...

  • This was followed by three weeks in India piloting a rickshaw, a tuk tuk, whatever you want to call it. Bajaj, the manufacturer, calls it 'Inspiring Confidence.' You should not call it that. It inspires nothing of the sort. A permanently rattling muffler, a hole in the cylinder head (yes, the only cylinder), a home-made side door, and pieces of the roof rack welded together, then lost anyway, later we arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal and were all too happy to part company with the three wheeled monsters. Except the locals decided to throw rocks at us while protesting, but we waited them out and finally got rid of the damn things.

    Cyrus taking the wilderbeast offroading somewhere in Kerala

  • the Mongol Rally. Perhaps you've heard of the little 27 year old mini that we nursed along from Paris to Ulaan Baatar to Japan, and finally across the Pacific to Seattle. Some highlights of things that went horribly, horribly wrong along the way:

  • I filed it up with gazole. Which means diesel in French. Which is quite bad for an engine designed to run on gasoline.

  • the French mechanics who fixed the diesel problem did a bit of other work, removing and consequently reinstalling the cooling fan in the process. They installed in backwards. Quite bad for cooling

  • the Molodovan customs authorities sent me back to Paris when it was discovered that the VIN number on my French documents didn't match the one on the car itself.

  • we lost the front grille somewhere in Western Kazakhstan. I don't know where exactly, but removing it did make the engine cool down much more effectively. I eventually insisted on replacing it with some chain link fence. I doubt it did much good, but it keeps amusing all mechanics who happen to see it to this day.

  • I sent the car sliding sideways at a disturbingly high rate of speed along the gravel near Altai, Mongolia. I did not kill Tina (or myself) in the process. We did smash into the embakment, which did kill some parts of the front right suspension. They would later be repaired - in part, by welding a piece of a wrought-iron chair into the system. Also still able to provide entertainment to mechanics the world over.

    The right wheel pointing off to the side a bit after the impact. Note the awesome chicken wire grill! Hey, at least we weren't as badly off as these guys:

    Picture taken approximately 30 minutes before the one above

  • Push-starting the mini is easy and had become very much a right of passage, so when it wouldn't start upon arriving in Vancouver, push starting seemed an obvious solution. Down in San Diego, on the other hand, I found my BMW's battery also quite dead, but push-starting didn't seem quite so obvious, or easy (I wonder if you even can, it was s stick shift?) AAA came out to jump start me instead, without any trouble. An hour later, they came out again, after I had stalled the car at a traffic light in pouring rain (yes, in San Diego, California!) and had found [much to my chagrin] that the battery was so dead that it had not gained any charge after the hour of driving. First, actually, I walked, in the driving rain, to an Autozone a mile away to try (and fail) to get the car started using their portable jump starter.

  • I spent the following 6 months in Latin America and Antarctica. The closest I got to actually piloting something was a horse in Brazil. In retrospect, I'm a little surprised it didn't kick me off.

  • Upon returning to the US in July, the problems immediately resurfaced. While visiting friends Eric and Kristine in San Francisco, we found the battery in Eric's car dead while trying to get to Napa valley. AAA to the rescue. I proceeded to rent a car and drive it out to Tahoe. Where I promptly locked my keys in the trunk. AAA to the rescue. Another rental car at Crater Lake in Oregon. The car got slammed with 15 minutes of sustained hail on an August morning. The day before had been 75 and sunny. AAA not involved, just seemed a bad omen.

    Arriving in Seattle, I attempted to make the mini run again. Tina and I failed to push-start it - the skills may have eroded since Mongolia... or maybe the battery was just too far gone. Jumper cables eventually got the car going, aside from connecting them backwards at first, which got the jumper cables a little hot, and the wires in the mini even hotter, as I later discovered some of the wire harnesses in the front to have melted. I've since purchased a fire extinguisher, but the car is yet to catch on fire! Small miracles...

    Which brings us to this past week. Lott doesn't tend to use his car all that much, so he's been willing to let me borrow it on occasion. The car and I were getting along reasonably well up until last Monday, when it failed to start. Collateral damage affecting innocent by-standers: Logan, (as in Logan who was traveling around India in a rickshaw with us), whom I was going to give a ride to the airport, if the car had started. He ended up catching a cab. The next day, the car continued to refuse to start, so I had it towed to a nearby mechanic (for not actually owning a car anymore, I've been using AAA a lot this year), who charged a tidy sum of money, but by Friday morning returned the car, which was now starting - hooray!

    By Saturday evening, it was once again not starting - booo! So much for the high-tech American mechanics being far superior to their Mongolian counterparts (to their credit, the Mongolians would've insisted on doing the repairs using only a welding torch and a large hammer, which may not necessarily have been any more effective. But probably would have been). Sunday, I was playing frisbee up in Shoreline, about 10 miles away. With the car still not showing any signs of life, and the weather looking beautiful (for what could be the last time this year), I biked. I made it in just over an hour, and it was a beautiful ride on a kinda warm sunny morning. Then the way back happened, and the car karma decided to strike the bike - the right side of my front brake just sort of springed off the bike right as I was passing through Ravenna Boulevard. I noted that there was a screw missing... and put it back in place, determined to get to the nearest bicycle repair shop. Five minutes later, the brake springed off again - this time, unfortunately, into some thick bushes, where it quickly proved to be lost forever. No matter, the front brake's just dangerous anyway, carry on.

    Around the U District, I got to my second bike shop along the way, and this once was even open on a Sunday afternoon. But didn't have the part I needed - guess it would've been convenient if mine hadn't been buried in a bush somewhere. Well, carry on, I suppose - there's plenty of bike shops around Capitol Hill, I can resolve this tomorrow...

    But... it gets better! Right as I had made it most of the way up the hill, my rear gears started skipping even more than usual. A bit of readjustment got things going again the first couple of times. The third time, it didn't work - I could now spin the pedals. Or I could spin the rear wheel. But there was no correlation between the two. Some little sprocket inside the gear mechanism had apparently snapped and my chain was no longer causing the wheel to spin. It was also getting colder and more cloudy, as I spent the next 30 minutes walking with the bike wondering if I was now a pedestrian and should be on the sidewalk or if I was still a biker and should be in the bike lane?

    There wasn't going to be any resolution for the bike this evening, so I decided to give one last effort to the car - it wasn't out of gas, but the gauge was showing it running pretty low. But... what if the gauge's lying, and Lott's just never mentioned it? Seems improbable, but why not, so armed with the biggest gas canister the 7-Eleven across the street would sell (1 gallon - sigh...), I put more gas into the car. And tried... and it started! I was pretty stunned, really, so I didn't think to try and give it any more gas while it was running. About 3 seconds later, the engine died again. Mildly encouraged (and surprised), I went back to 7-Eleven and got another gallon of gas. The car responded by doing absolutely nothing. I conceded that it was time to admit defeat, so plan for Monday morning: go back to the shop that had worked, oh so diligently on the car last week, and yell at them - see if they can actually get the car properly fixed this time, In parallel, find a bike shop, and see if they can re-establish the close-knit relationship between the chain and the wheel. And maybe fix the front break. Unfortunately what I really need to do is fly this guy in from Bolivia so he can bless the car (and the bike) and hopefully reset my auto karma!

    A priest from the Copacabana Cathedral performing a perfectly serious 'Blessing the Cars' ceremony. Daily!

    In the mean time, a few more automotive adventures from the road:

    A rental car near Alice Springs, Australia - taking a shortcut along an unpaved road. Yes Avis explicitly prohibits taking the car on any unpaved roads, but I wanted to get back before it got dark! No problems ensued.

    Avis NZ now, on the other hand, does not explicitly prohibit driving their cars through the ocean, so Buster and I taking our rental car for a little dip at the bottom of New Zealand's South Island was perfectly legitimate. In an unrelated story, Avis NZ would later try to charge me a much higher daily rate for the car. My indignant protestations eventually got most of the difference back. Through all this Avis remained wholly ignorant of our little ocean detour.

    I had rented a few scooters in Thailand and Indonesia. Somewhat surprisingly, nothing ever went wrong with them - not even when I strapped a surf board to one in Bali. I did burn my arm on the exhaust pipe in Yogyakarta, but it was perfectly minor. I don't think I even really needed all that anti-burn medication I got out of my medkit!

    Traveling into Vietnam from the Laos border is a challenging proposition, so Peter, Nathalie and I ended up catching a ride in the back of a Vietnamese truck. Went surprisingly well, in spite of the truck driver, upon arrival, asking for twice the payment we had agreed on. We refused and moved on. It did set the stage for me not particularly liking Vietnam.

    Beware of Bigfoot! While biking around Seattle...

    Monday morning update: Lott's car is now back at the repair shop. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was a newspaper article posted on the wall listing the best mechanics in Seattle, according to someone's ranking. Presumably Moss Alley shop is in that list, or it would be a little awkward to have that hanging on their wall... Second thing I noticed (or rather overheard) was a lady dropping her car off because some service they had recently done on it turned out to not have permanently fixed her problem either. Oddly familiar...

    Monday evening update: Both vehicles have been repaired - we can make this work yet, karma! With or without the wacky Bolivian priests...