A Really Bad Day

Today started out easily enough. The hotel served a decent breakfast, and my laundry was line-dried and ironed by 9:30am. We were on the road by 10.

Unfortunately, the road south from Santa Inês was pretty rough. We took it slow, but I’d occasionally hit a pothole. My engine was running rough, and I could feel the vibration through my gear shift, but I figured that this was because of the low-octane gasoline.

Just outside of town we filled up with gas, and I took on a passenger. His name is Valdir (roughly pronounced ‘vow-ji’.) As we drove south, I learned that he was 19 years old, owned only the shirt on his back and his shorts (no shoes), and had seven years of education. He was wandering south, trying to get a good job. He would work at a truck stop for food until he could find a lift further south. (Truck stops and many roadside restaurants in Brasil have the advantage of both bathrooms and public showers.)

Valdir is only 19, but he looks like an old man. Life’s obviously been rough on him. He’s weathered. His eyes aren’t dull (as in stupid), but they’re tired. He’d dyed a patch of his hair blond, and I told him I liked it. He laughed, and you could see that there was a kid in there. While we were driving south he would occasionally start singing some song to himself. Most of the time neither of us spoke, each thinking our own thoughts.

Around 1pm my engine suddenly roared. I knew that one of the pipes to my muffler was gone again. At the next town I pulled over and confirmed that the pipe leading into the catalytic converter had sheared off. It looked like someone had cut through it with a torch. We continued towards the next town, and along the way Tyler told me that my muffler was hanging down.

We reached the small town of Bacabal and drove around for a while searching for someone who would work on my car. Lunch hour here is from noon until two, and everyone was on siesta. After checking three places and a VW dealership, we finally found someone who had a lift and could do the work.

When we got the van up in the air, we realized the extent of the damages. The intake pipe to the catalytic converter had been shorn off, as had both muffler mounts. The other side of the catalytic converter had lost two of the three bolts, and one was loose. The muffler was being cradled by my new hitch mount, but was slowly sliding out to the side.

There was nothing else to do. We went to lunch. There was a small place at the north entrance to Bacabal that was crowded at 1 when we drove by, so we went back there. A churrascara, of course. We ate chicken, green beans and hearts of palm, spaghetti with tuna sauce, and other yummies while sitting under a thatch pagoda by a duck pond. There was a cool breeze, and tomorrow’s featured poultry wandered around. Beside us grew a cashew tree (‘caju’ in Portuguese.) It was heavily in fruit, and the nuts hung under the fruit like, well, nuts.

When we returned, everything was patched, and the bill was R$20 (US$10). We headed down the road once again. Soon after Bacabal the roads became quite civilized, and we were making good time. Then, around 5:30pm, the coolant temperature light on my dashboard started flashing and the alternator light lit up.

I immediately pulled over and put on my hazards. I went back to talk with Tyler, and together we checked out the van. The coolant level looked good. The oil level was right. Tyler thought it might be an electrical problem, and that the gauges were wrong. We decided to continue down the road, and see what happened.

I should have know what caused this… I’d discussed it with someone just before leaving the states. But electrical problem sounded like a theory worth pursuing.

We drove on. Within a minute the red light was flashing. Within two Tyler told me to stop, that coolant was pouring out of the bottom of my engine. I stopped, and steam was pouring out of my vents. There was a bright green puddle under my van.

Driving was obviously out of the question. About the third time we looked into the small license plate hatch, I noticed that there was a belt floating around in there where a belt had no place being, and everything clicked into place. A single belt drives both the alternator and the water pump. I should have realized this immediately.

About this time, a car carrier pulled in behind us. It was the same gentleman who had brought our cars from Manaus to Belém. We asked him for advice on where we could bring the car. No problem, he said. He’d tow us.

I had towing supplies aplenty. We doubled up a 30′ tow strap through a loop on the back of his car carrier, and attached it to the hitch on the front of my car. Since the strap was attached to his truck at the left rear corner, he told me to stay towards the center of the road, so there wouldn’t be too much cross-pull on the hitch. And off we went, with Jeanne and Tyler following with hazards a-flashing.

The next 45 minutes were the worse part of this entire process. For those 45 minutes I expected that some sort of collision was imminent, and that it would be my fault. I was pulled 15 feet behind a huge truck. When the truck was going up hills, things were generally fine. When the truck was going down hills, my van would accelerate, and the tow strap would get slack. I’d have to put on the brake, but not so hard that the strap would snap tight. Inevitably there would be some snap, and the van would bounce forward towards the truck again. Meanwhile busses and other large trucks kept passing us on a two-lane road with practically no shoulder, and I’d have to pull over, forcing the tow strap diagonal and shortening the distance between us.

Oh, and this all happened in the dark.

Finally, finally, we pulled into a Texaco station about 100km northwest of Teresina. When we’d stopped and were figuring out what to do, a gentleman on a bicycle came up and told us that he was the 24-hour mechanic on duty. We pushed the van over to his shop and opened her up.

He poked around for a second before lifting a large chunk out of the motor. The alternator belt had come off because the alternator had come off. The alternator is held on by at least three brackets, all of which had sheared off cleanly. The alternator was simply bouncing around on top of the engine.

Then he pointed through the engine to the morning’s muffler weld, which had broken again.

I was still shaking from the tow, and now I felt like I just wanted to walk into the jungle, take off my clothes, and eat bananas. Tyler looked at me and said “I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life.” I didn’t find that particularly reassuring.

The mechanic, however, didn’t seem to think this was a problem. With Valdir’s help, he carefully removed the pieces of the brackets, keeping track of their alignment. I left Tyler to keep an eye on things and went to take a shower. If I didn’t get away I was going to fall down.

The shower was wonderful. Cool, but not cold. A simple overhead valve… no shower head, just a pipe. I got naked, turned on the water, and let it run over me. It felt good.

When I returned, the brackets were being welded back into one piece. Over the next hour he slowly bolted everything back together. Finally he told me to start the engine. I turned the key, and everything worked. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up.

I don’t think things are that good, though. I think I have a serious problem in my engine. I expect that there is vibration that is causing things to get stress fractures and disintegrate. The muffler is still loose, and I expect that things will continue to come apart. (We’re going to try to get the muffler re-welded in Teresina.)

I told Tyler that I would keep trying to move forward until it becomes unreasonable. We’ll see what happens. If things continue to be bad, I can get the van to a port, put it on a ship to San Francisco, and then fly home.

Lots of trucks have pulled in, and some contain hammocks hung across the inside of the cab. Others hang hammocks from one truck to another, or below the frame of the truck. Three ludicrously thin women in short red dresses are going from truck to truck offering their services. The guy who repaired my engine just heated up a piece of metal by holding it against a grinding wheel, and then used it to light his cigarette.

I need sleep.


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