Archive for the ‘The Van’ Category

We can’t win…

Natalie is finally feeling better. Nothing mechanical or electric broke down on the car today. I’m a bit worried that we may have fried one of the batteries though because its not taking a complete charge. Minor compared to our normal woes. The stereo worked the whole way, the AC worked 95% of the time but we may need to get a freon refill on the AC unit because it isn’t very cold.

We had a mishap of another kind on the road today though. The bike rack on the rear spare tire broke. We hit a bump and the screws cleaved right off. Awesome. Hollywood racks is getting a nasty gram from me. Luckily I have a pretty sophisticated cable lock for the bikes and that held them partially on. The rear tire of my cyclocross bike dragged on the ground for a few miles before the tool booth operator informed us of our problem. By that time the road had ruined the tire and the tube and possible the wheel. Hopefully we might be able to get it fixed in Sayulita or Puerto Vallarta.

Also, our brand new SteriPen has decided to quit working and our also brand new 5 gallon water cube leaks. So basically all the Aztec Gods are aligned against us but yet we push on.


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Beach Driving, Take II

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The last couple days we’ve been on Isla de la Piedras I’ve been helping out Warren (the RV park manager) with the internet and a few various related computer tasks to help him get ready for the influx of snowbirds. He and his wife Joyce have been really sweet and taken good care of us; making sure we get a chance to buy produce, water and assorted sundries off the delivery truck. Joyce made Natalie chicken soup when she was sick and they fed us dinner last night along with another couple that had just arrived. Dinners that don’t involve the camp stove or boiling water for dishes are much appreciated these days.

The RVers that arrived yesterday are a retired couple from Western Washington. They have a big bus that is converted into an RV. They had broken down earlier in the day but managed to get it jumped and made it down the road to the island. Barely. Well, sort of made it. They got just inside the gate and the rig broke down, sound familiar.

I hadn’t realized they were having issues until about an hour after they’re arrival or I’d have gone over and offered my now slightly higher than amateur mechanical skills much earlier. When I did wander over it was like deja vu on steriods; battery cables, volt meters, charge controllers all laying askew in various conditions. The van has a multitude of very weird custom wiring, but it is no match for this behemoth. Giant military batteries, a slew of golf cart “house” batteries, crazy charge regulators, multiple alternators, it was quite the scene. I wish I had the camera.

After a while it was determined that the giant alternator that you need to be less than 100lbs to get to and change had died and that one of the starter batteries had accompanied it into the afterlife. Well, I just so happened to have an extra marine deep cycle battery in a box on the roof. Ron Talbot and I had drilled holes and meticulously glued nuts into the box so it could be screwed to the rack and would be rather difficult to remove and steal. Check off the difficult to remove part. About 30 minutes later I had the battery off the roof and we had it in the bus/RV. She roared to life. 750 cold crank amps of pure diesel power. That got her out of the park drive way and into the assigned spot, time for a good helping of tequila for me.

It felt good to finally be able to help someone else out on this trip, be it computer issues or auto repairs it was a welcomed change to be on the other side for once. And with that, I hope that there are no more blog posts about auto repair. On to San Blas today as the surf here has gone lake-like, check the spot a little later for our locale.

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The Return of Ramon

Yesterday Ramon returned to work on the van. He brought with him a new high-output alternator (130 amps), our old alternator re-jiggered to 90 amps instead of 70 – don’t ask me how; hopefully we never have to install it, a new voltage regulator, new wiring clips for the dash ac unit, and a whole slew of new style fuses and wires. He sent Gilberto back to Mazatlan for a whole set of new belts as well.

Roughly six hours and a variety of tests and changes later, Ramon had bypassed much of the original fuse box and the very shady custom wiring attached to it in favor of new style plug fuses, installed the new alternator and regulator, rewired the air conditioner, changed all of the belts, and bypassed one of the solenoids. “Catorce Voltios!!!” Ramon shouted as Gilberto gave it a little gas, he followed it up with a small little dance to the mariachis music emanating from the cruise ship entertainment at the restaurant next door.

Ramon has guaranteed that we will have no electrical problems all the way to Panama. He said after that we are on our own. I asked if he was going to drive to Honduras when we broke down to fix it to make good on his guarantee? He said only labor and parts were covered on his guarantee and that travel would be extra but he’d be happy to come to Honduras on our dime. I’m sure he would.

Neto and I celebrated with a long board session. The waves weren’t so good but he told me of some spots further south to check out. I gave him some wax as it is prohibitively expensive here (US$6/bar) and I promised to send him some supplies from the US so he can finish shaping his 13 year old daughter’s surf board.

We ran the stereo for a good six hours last night; a feat that had been impossible previously with our electrical issues. Thus I have moved slowly back into the “cautiously optimistic” camp and ready to depart for points further south. Unfortunately Natalie has become very ill. While I gradually recovered from my intestinal gremlins, Natalie’s have become progressively nastier to the point where she can no longer keep anything down or in. During the whole car repair saga she moaned from the confines of the bedroom.

We’ve named all the sections of the car – the bed is the bedroom, the floor between the front seats and the bed, including the passenger seat – when turned around, is the living room. The drivers seat is the driving room (I bet none of you readers have a driving room in your house!), and the screened in patio/awning outdoor area is divided between the kitchen and the dining room. Casita viajera.

So we are stuck in Mazatlan/Isla de la Piedras for at least one more day. We’ll be here until she feels mostly better as the medical care here is as good as we’d be able to find for a good stretch. Luckily the surf is acceptable. The morning high tide has some shoulder to head high racers and the rest of the day has fun, 50 yard, long board cruisers, lefts and rights.

Also it seems the wifi may get fixed today as well. The Infinitum repair guy was here stringing some new lines. It appears that the problem was that lightening had struck the utility pole (er… palm tree) during the last big storm and fired the wires. So perhaps I’ll have internet from the comfort of the dining room rather than the vacant dirt lot down the way that I’ve been using as my local hotspot.

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We took the water taxi to Mazatlan in search of a couple of things. The first was a pizza place called Benji’s Pizza. A gringo in Celestino Gasca had told us that we had to try it that it was the best pizza in Mexico. After a 30 minute search of Old Mazatlan by pulmonia (open air taxi) we abandoned our search at the Mercado Central. We wandered the stalls and ate street food, taking it all in. We then headed to the newer, glitzier, tourist dominated, Zona Dorada (gold zone) in search of a surf shop.

Outside of Hermosillo, we were search by one of the Federale checkpoints. It was one of the more thorough searches I’ve endured. Happy and chatting the whole time, they pulled most of the van apart. They then wanted to check the top. This is sort of my nightmare as it takes 20-30 minutes to pack and unpack the roof. But up I went to unlock the boards. I told the young Federale to wait until I had unlocked the boards. He said that it wasn’t necessary and before I could stop him he stepped on the nose of my gun (7’6” big wave board). Crack.

The main surf shop in Mazatlan is called Mazatlan Surf Center, it’s a small little shop by SoCal standards and the board repair guy wouldn’t be in until 2:00 the next day. So off we went in search of the M Magazine. An English language tourist zine, M was purported to have an advertisement for an English speaking auto electric mechanic – purported by the same gringo that recommended the as-yet to be located Benji’s Pizza. We traipsed from resort hotel to resort hotel looking for the mag. After our second failure to locate a copy of M, a Mexican surfer and another local looking guy came ambling up the rocks to the street in front of the hotel. I asked, in English, how the waves were? The surfer replied in English “ok, fun, got wet.”

Not expecting any reply at all, much less in English, we stopped to chat with the guys. Neto and his buddy Gilberto we late-forty-something surfers that had both lived and traveled in the states. Neto, it turns out, knows the editor of M Magazine and knew where to find one. Also, just my luck, Neto was an amateur shaper and could fix my board. The stringer had popped through the glass so it would take some fabric and some skill to fix. I took a shot in the dark and asked Neto if he knew a good auto electric mechanic and he said he knew the best one in all of Mazatlan. He invited us to jump in the back of his truck and he’d take us to the guy’s house and we’d talk to him about the van issues.

We jumped in the back of the truck and sped away down the malecon. In the middle of traffic Neto’s truck died. He managed to coast into a parking spot. Great. How good could this guy’s mechanic be if his truck just died on us. Luckily Neto was just out of gas. So Gilberto, Natalie and I just sat in the back of the truck, drank beers, and watched the sunset while Neto marched off for a gallon of gas (literally a gallon, not liters, as he had a gallon milk jug in the back of the truck).

We rolled up to Ramon’s place just after dark. Ramon the Mechanic is a mid fifties, be-speckled, no-nonsense sort of guy. He is very introspective, deliberate, asks the right questions and doesn’t speak unless he has something well thought-out and reasoned to stay. He reminds me of my Dad in a lot of ways. I instantly liked him despite the fact that he spoke zero English and didn’t understand a word of my limited Spanish. I felt more confident in him than any other Mexican mechanic thus far. He actually wanted to know the whole history and everything that had be done. He gave no suggestions as to what might be the problem but he offered to come out to the island the next afternoon and run diagnostics on the electrical system. He doubted it could be fixed the same day and that we’d most likely have to wait until Monday to get the right parts.

We made plans for the three of them to come to Isla de la Piedras the next afternoon sometime after 1:00 pm. I gave them water taxi money and they dropped us off at the embarcadero.

After my morning session at the Piedras beach break – a fun, punchy, set of peaks a lot like IB back home, we lounged around and chatted with our newly arrived neighbors. Warren and Joyce are Canadian snow birds from just outside of Toronto that have been managing the Tres Amigos RV park on the island for seven years. They were about as surprised to see us as we were of them – us because we had been so isolated at all our stops so far, and them because they had never showed up for the season and had someone already in the park before. “The Season” for the snowbird RVers is (depending on who you talk to) roughly October 15th or November 1st through whenever it gets too bloody hot to stay for the summer.

Like clockwork for Mexico, Neto, Gilberto, and Ramon showed up at the park at 2:30; Roman toting a full complement of electric diagnostic tools. Gilberto expertly translated my full electric history for Ramon that I had painstakingly scribbled down that morning. At some point, if I have nothing to post, I’ll transcribe it here. It is pretty funny to read.

Ramon went to work, connecting and disconnecting various components of the van’s “custom” electrical system, periodically asking me to start the van, turn on all the electrical, accelerate some, more gas, less gas. He was painstakingly thorough. He announced that the initial problem was that the alternator wasn’t charging near the full capacity. It was only kicking out 11 volts and really need to be in the ~14 range. He asked what the total amperage of the new alternator was. I told him 70 amps. He laughed, not condescending, but knowingly – “doble!” he exclaimed. He then explained that the alternator that Checker in Tucson had sold me was for the base model van, not one with two batteries, two stereo amps, a 10” subwoofer, 8 speakers, a multitude of interior lights, etc. The engine electrical system would alone need all the amps from the alternator and that I needed a high output alternator. The batteries weren’t receiving hardly any charge at all while driving, possibly even a net drain. Which, would explain why the van worked fine for an hour or so after having the solar panels plugged in but quickly degraded as we rolled down the road.

If Ramon hurried, he could make it to Mazatlan, and back with a new alternator before the parts store closed. Neto worked on the board and the rest of us lounged around and drank beers into the evening. Ramon finally came strolling back up the beach with… the same damn alternator in hand. Ugh. I went from cautiously optimistic to downtrodden immediately. Ramon explained that he wasn’t sure if the larger alternator would fit so he just had this one rebuilt such that it would kick out more amps. Dubious as I was I let Ramon put the old alternator back in. We went back through the whole litany of tests. No bueno. Still less than 12 volts coming back to the batteries. Parts stores were all going to be closed on Sunday, so we made plans for Neto and Ramon to come back on Monday with the new alternator. We shall see. I’m still not totally confident that the alternator is the problem. We’ll let Ramon put it in and then he and I will take it for a test drive down the Isla Piedras road. That should be a more than ample test.

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You’ve all seen the movie right? We have two types of Gremlins haunting us. The first, and amazingly less worrisome, are the sharp teethed, pointy eared, green motherfuckers living in our guts, wringing out our intestines like they were wet towels. Some probiotic yogurt drinks and possibly some Cipro and we become the good guys in the movie that microwaves the bastards.

The second type is like a string of really bad horror sequels that keep showing up at your neighborhood cinema. Think Saw II though VI. You saw the first one, thought that it was pretty inventive, something different. But then they just keep coming and you think, who are these morons who keep shelling out $10 a pop to watch the same shit over and over again. Eternally frustrating.

That’s how I feel about our electrical problems. At first I was kind scared that we’d get stranded by the side of the road and some banditos or narcotrafficante would rob us or worse and then tell us that they wasn’t going to steal our piece of shit van because it was too much of a headache.

Now we joke about having a flickr set of portraits of Mexican mechanics that have worked on the van. We are currently up to five with nothing to show but a few hundred miles south. There is a short somewhere. I just can’t figure out where in the hell it is. We are not going to leave Mazatlan until it is solved. If we can’t figure it out then ferry to La Paz and homeward bound.

Oh… and if you ever have anyone tell you that the Mexicans can fix anything, call bullshit. The real answer is that the Mexicans can keep any old POS junker on the road forever never once buying a new replacement part. That in and of itself is a true marvel; but it is in no way the same as actually fixing the damn car (van).

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Mazatlan is one of those places that we both relish and fear. The tourist resorts of Mexico are awesome places, a place to reconnect with civilization, re-supply, and find a decent mechanic that may or may not be able to fix the van. They are also places of high crime, high prices, high crowds (in the surf only – we are again the only ones at our current RV park. We haven’t even see the manager, we talked to him on the phone yesterday afternoon, he said he’d come by mañana morning. It’s officially tardes and no manager yet.

Isla de la Piedras is a good spot to capitalize on all the resort has to offer without many of the headaches. The “island” is set up much like Coronado “Island” in San Diego without the bridge. The peninsula comes rather close to Mazatlan proper and is only a 10 peso, 10 minute, water taxi ride away. Its still rather expensive per night and the beer is ridiculously priced but it has the feeling of a small fishing village turned tourist getaway. We don’t exactly have all the amenities we need though, the good mechanics are all on the other side of the water and since there haven’t been any guests here in a while the wifi is off. We might have to move back into town.

I think the reason it has retained its charm while Mazatlan has grown up around it is the eight mile road in:

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