So I’m in the van, a plan 8 months in the making and a few hundred dollars worth of travel. It’s a 1994 Mitsubishi Delica L300 “Star Wagon”, and being Japanese, you likely haven’t heard of it. There’s a law in the States that foreign vehicles must be over 25 years old to import them. Or needs to have been produced for 25 yrs for legal importation, which the Delia hasn’t yet, thus none in the US. I may have that a little wrong, or completely wrong. ¿Lo me sigas?
It’s been a little over three weeks since I flew into Santiago, Chile and Ian scooped me up. Homeboy is an old friend who I bounced around with in Central America late last year. He left our hostel in Medellín the day after Christmas and I haven’t seen him since. As of now, we’ve made it almost 2,000 kilometers north and we sit on a beach in Iquique now getting ready to pass out in the back. This is the Atacama Desert, the driest (non-polar) place on earth.
The dream is being lived in every way shape and form, as you may have suspected. This beast has everything. We sleep in the back, which is exactly as weird as it sounds and we cook tons of delicious food with the porto-stove/fold-out table. There’s a refrigerator, hip inside lights for nighttime and a solar panel up top for the separate battery that charges all the auxiliary stuff aforementioned. There’s also a water filter and pump and if the engine has been running it comes out hot! Some Germans modified it and you know how efficient they are. It’s titled in British Columbia, where Ian is from, and the idea is that he’ll eventually make it back there and sell the old girl.
I’ve been gone over a year now and am over planning anything. Ever, I hate it. Let’s just go and figure it out when we get there, yeah? Ian isn’t the biggest planner either so our days generally consist of waking up, hitting the road for a while and pulling off when we want to for a place to post up. The autonomy here is perfect. Where I am going to sleep every night, bus schedules and all that other jazz that comes with moving around different countries living out of two backpacks is behind me, literally. Now we do what we want because we’re two ginger bosses. When the sun starts to go down we find some side road with no one around (usually on the beach, we’ve been mainly on the coast) and post up. Out comes our stove, all the veggies we recently bought and some excellent bachelor meals are revealed. The joke is that if there were ever any ladies around we might have to think things through a little more. They’re never around. Really though, I don’t need food to be any better than some of the stuff Ian puts out.
Not much breakfast gets made because we’re already so pokey and I sorta just want to get on the road in the morning. I have a bit of a hard time because Ian has terrible eating habits (doesn’t eat all day then gorges at night) but I am cursed with a constant hunger. Constant. There’s a lot of fruit around and possibly I’ll survive.
Ian does most of the driving, being the captain of the ship, but I manage to get in the driver’s seat a good amount. What makes it even more fun to drive is that since it was imported from Japan, the steering wheel is on the right side. And since it’s manual, you have to do all the shifting with your left hand. It was weird at first, as I have never driven a car with the steering on the right, much less all that shifting, but you get used to it pretty fast. What takes more getting used to is the zillion blind spots, how big the van is, how high up you are and the kind of power it puts out, both when and how much. Imagine having to drive a large actual caterpillar. Or one of those sand worms from Dune. Something like that.
So of course, while I was driving, we have our first “van incident”. The roads here aren’t great, which I know must come as a big shock. Last Thursday in the afternoon we’re maybe 50 kilometers south of Tocopilla on the Panamerican Highway. I hit a smallish pothole, maybe at 70kph and a terrible noise commences, the whole van leans north-east and the brakes go out. This might have been terrible in a another situation but really I just pulled off the road and we freaked out for a while. One of the arms that holds the (front-right) wheel in place had cracked off and severed the brake cable. Brake fluid is pushed around by pressure, so when one of the cable snaps, all the brakes go out.
So the wheel looks terrible, it’s not going to run, we’re sort of in the middle of nowhere and thus commence freaking out. After about 15 minutes of this, we simmer down, walk to the last town we saw and start asking people what the heck they think we should do. Eventually we find someone who calls a tow truck company for us from Tocopilla, the following city. The guys come out, eventually, with a tow truck slightly smaller than our van and we spend another hour trying to get it up. Once it’s up and on, we then receive the price for towing it back into town, 130,000 pesos, which is almost $200. This is three times more expensive, at least, than the highest number I had in my head. What are we going to do though? And they know that. Se we head into town, very slowly. They drop us off at a gas station in town (because it’s well lit/safe) and tell us they’ll come get us in the morning to go to their body shop. We give them half the money we owe them with the other half when they come get us in the morning.
They come get us, as promised, take us to their kind-of-sketchy-looking body shop and start working on the van. This goes on all day, with speculations of success constantly wavering back and forth. Eventually things are together tho! They get the ball-thing that holds the wheel in place and another brake cable connected. We paid, well, a lot for it, 200,000 pesos for everything which is almost $300. Whatever, I still work, I have money/income and life goes on. Any car related problems under $400 is OK in my book.
It could have been much, much worse. The brakes could have gone out on any of the 1000 mountains we’ve gone over, the road could have been steep off to the side and we flip, we could have been stuck on the side of that highway for a whole night and we could have paid $1000.
So we hit the road and moral is high. In less than 24 hours we went from freaking out on the side of a desert road with a bent wheel to everything fixed. Bosses, no? Then, the following day, wait for it, the brakes go out again. This time we’re not really that close to anything. We pull the wheel off and find out that the cable they put on was too long and got ground down. Sad face! And after we paid all that money. So Ian tries to patch it, not happening, tons of pressure. We’re sort of staring at each other again wondering what the heck we should do. So Ian’s gonna hitchhike to Iquique and back for the part while I wait in the van on the side of the highway. It’s getting dark.
Then we get lucky; some cops roll up and inform us that the toll we paid about a mile back entitles us to free mechanic work on the highway. Way to go Chile. Then a few minutes later some guys show up, highway-help types, saw us from the other side of the road. They’re super nice, and after informing us that we did in fact pay way too much money for our worthless mechanic work (if you’re going to rip someone off at least do the job right…) they say, it’s very flat to Iquique from here, we’ll drive behind you with our lights on. So, we drove like the final 20k with no brakes and manage to park it right outside of town.
It’s late Saturday now and we’re on the clock before everything closes until Monday. After 10 places and actually doing some running we have the part! Brake cable = flexible de freno. We get some dinner, slide on the back, Ian fixes that beast up and we hit the beach for a night of good vibes and wine.
That brings you up to last weekend! We’re going to cross the border into Bolivia next week and spend some time shooting through the salt flats, which will undoubtedly yield some awesome shots/mediocre stories.
Gracias por leer y les mando mucho suerte! A veces lo quiero mucho a volver mi país, pero mucho mas veces lo quiero esta vida. Y por supuesto lo deseo que hablar mucho mas español, pero yo creo que eso nunca lo va a cambiar.
More to come! Thanks to Ian for a couple of pics…
You’re super lucky, typically when a ball joint breaks the whole wheel falls off. If that happens at speed in a van you definitely roll. As it happens, I’ve been spending my weekends building out my own adventure van. I’ll have to compare notes with Ian sometime.
for sure it could have been a million times worse. i read your comment to my friend and he said b/c the bottom arm didn’t break that the wheel didn’t come off.
the germans who modded our van made a site about it, worth looking at: http://dinoevo.de/.
you got a plan for when to hit road or where?