Archive for June, 2006

Regular Maintenance

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

Building & Repairing Cars
In our convenience-focused lifestyles the maintenance of one’s own automobile is no longer a topic. The urban consumer, as epitomized by those living in Europe and US cities puts a premium on convenience.

The urban driving experience is limited. We are used to putter around, often traveling short distances and rarely leaving the same postal code.

Electronic ignition changed everything. Getting under the hood/bonnet is no longer encouraged and modern vehicle design can make it difficult to perform even the simplest maintenance tasks. Access for human beings to the engine is no longer designed in.

The modern car engine is built by robots, and actually driven by computer chips. You, the driver, merely provide directions. The modern driver thinks they feel the front wheels moving when turning the steering wheel, but the truth is that custom computer chips are conveying that ‘feel’. This feedback is in turn based on sensors in the steering ‘system’ which is converted through servo motors into emulated friction. The whole experience of driving a modern car is somewhat of an emulation, and emulators are hard to fix.

In the Western World, many buy their vehicles new. While still under warranty, the driver receives regular warranty check-ups usually performed at a certified shop or at the dealership. These are scheduled every few thousand kilometers or every few months (whichever comes first). Some warranted vehicle coverage stops at the border but some transnational arrangements are available, for instance in the European Union. Such arrangements even exist in Latin America for luxury vehicles.

This whole urban maintenance system is designed to be fool proof because various assumptions are made. It is assumed that the automobile is being driven in an urban environment by someone who knows nothing about cars except how to enter them start them and go. In fact, in some cases we are encouraged by the threat of a voided warranty not to look under the hood.

Fast forward to Latin America

In Latin America, a working vehicle should be considered a matter of life or death. The distances one would expect to travel are much longer than that which is normal especially in Europe or Japan but distance is not that important. Much more important, is the stress and the strain placed on a vehicle by Latin American driving conditions especially while driving off road. This coupled with the extremes of weather and the topography epitomized by the proximity of the Andes and Amazon makes basic knowledge and maintenance vigilance not just important but vital.

You need to take charge of a lot of the chores that your local mechanic would have normally performed for you, were you still local. Doing this is not just a good idea it must be considered vital.

Long Distance is Different

In an urban environment, one can afford to drive round town with a soft tire, a faulty windscreen wiper, a burned out bulb, an overdue oil change, or a low coolant level. We might see a warning light and we might not, but it probably isn’t critical either way. These things are not critical for short trips on well-lit asphalt roads. On the other hand overlooking such small matters can result in serious hazards when driving long distances! This is especially true when driving in extreme off-road conditions.

Your can is a finely tuned road machine and hopefully you have chosen a vehicle that handles well in off-road conditions, but keep in mind traversing many thousands of kilometers in Latin America is likely to test the limits of endurance of even the best vehicles. Chances are you won’t have the luxury of an on-board mechanic like on the Paris Dakar so guess what! You’re it!

What Can I do?

OK, I hear you say: I’m no mechanic. Well sorry, but it is time to start thinking like a mechanic. Just like learning to drive, maintenance awareness will become second nature once you develop a few life-saving habits! If you don’t you may damage that expensive and essential vehicle on which you have become so dependent. Like so many things in life, this is a two-way relationship; if you take care of your vehicle, your vehicle will take care of you.

A question of time

Certain tasks need to be done on a daily basis many when the engine is cold. If you are tired in the morning and you arrive at your parking space to get the car. You will be tempted to just get into the car and go. Don’t! I know your friend might be waiting impatiently at the hotel, you may well be late, you might be sleepy, but think of these tasks as being about as important as putting on clothes and finding your keys and you’ll be fine.

Now the last thing you want to do at this time of day is get yourself all dirty under the hood of the vehicle but get used to doing this visual inspection on a daily basis especially after a long hard drive the day before. The parking security people might be looking on bleary eyed after a long night but they are not thinking: “Oh I wish this gringo would get out of here so I can go back to sleep, instead of asking me for water for his radiator.” Instead he’s thinking: “This gringo knows what they’re doing, he’s “Long Distance” ”.

Getting down to detail

The following lists are designed with your car’s health in mind. Because you might be reticent to take all of this on I have also added are a few short points of rationale. Just in case you might not think you need to do so much so often.

Daily Chores

Clean Your Windscreens
Keep windscreen clean especially in the morning or evening while driving into the sun or while driving at night.

This is especially true at altitude or while driving into the sun. Yeah I know that bug juice is disgusting but would you rather hit one of those filthy old trucks?

Always Fill tank before leaving town
Sometimes you might be tempted to wait until the next town to fill up especially if fuel costs are high or you are comparing prices or if you suddenly find yourself out of town and don’t want to double back.

Never leave a town without filling at least your primary tank. There may not be fuel available in the next town, the station might be closed or the fuel may have run out, or they might not sell your gasoline.

Remote stations usually have fuel for trucks, so diesel is less of an issue, but gasoline can occasionally be hard to find. Ask ahead.

External Load Check
Check external load every day, especially rook racks. An axe falling off or a tank of gasoline will be inconvenient and might be fatal to the vehicle behind you. Elasticated nets can be useful to prevent losing load items, but ratcheting down a load is the best option for safety?

Check coolant level and reserve, watch for reserve overflow
The coolant is the water/chemical mix that fills your radiator. Every mechanic has his/her own favorite coolant and water/coolant ratio (usually 50-50 for liquid forms).

The radiator operates under pressure when operating normally which means that the only time you can open the cap is when the car is cold. The normal operating temperature of the car is quite hot enough to scald you very badly so never open the cap on the top of the radiator when the radiator still feels hot to touch.

Tires (Special note on Gomerias/Llanterias)
Every time you pull in for fuel check your tire pressures. In many rural areas you will find that you need to go to a Gomeria or a Llanteria to get air (assuming you are not carrying your own pump or compressor).

Check air filter and clean or replace when necessary
The air filter is your friend and if you are driving a lot on dirt you are going to have to check it on a daily basis. Carry a spare and know how to clean your filter. The air filters are cleaned by using an air gun (the same thing you use to blow up your tires or for running power tools. Ask for an appropriate fitting and blow the air through the filter in the opposite direction to the way the air passes through the filter to enter the motor (usually from the inside out). The air filter is crucial to the wellbeing of your engine and has a major effect on fuel efficiency.

When checking oil level watch for color changes
Your dipstick is your friend; think of it as the blood test of your engine. Before you pull off in the morning, check that your car is on a level surface and check the oil level. Take a close look at the dipstick paying particular attention to water in the oil and the color of the oil and/or possible drops of water.

If you change your oil regularly, it should never really get completely black before it is changed. Note oil is typically a golden color but some oils are colored differently. Red oil in Mexico is not uncommon. Synthetic oils are often unusual colors.
Visually inspect your oil for clues as to problems with the engine, Water is a bad sign but can be due to a bad seal. Bring it to the attention of a mechanic.

Weekly or less frequent checks.

Oil Changes
Change oil and filter regularly, approx every 10,000 to 12,000 Km. for non-synthetic oil in normal conditions. Always carry a spare oil filter in case one not available or very expensive.

Different oil for different temperatures
Listen to the advice of your oil change experts. As the climate gets hotter the viscosity of the oil required by your engine will change. For example, where you use 20-50 in the cold high desert, you might change to 10-40 in the Jungle.

Always use good oil but become a brand freak — some people are overly religious about their oil. I tended to use Castrol, it is widely available, but many oils are excellent. Shell is very widely available and recommended, as are many US brands in Central America and Mexico.

Different octane levels for different altitudes
Brazil often has two grades of diesel and diesel cars usually use the higher grade but the situation with gasoline/petrol (nafta in Argentina) cars is more complex.

The octane levels required by your gasoline engine are lower at significant altitudes. Where you might use 87 octane gasoline at sea-level 84 or even 81 might work just as well above 2500 meters. This is usually self-regulating. You don’t have to think about it as the gasoline available will be the one you buy.

If the octane used is too high this is rarely an issue, but some older cars will find it difficult to operate at overly low octane levels when the engine will pink. Pinking is a metallic rattle that happens when you depress the accelerator in an octane-starved engine.

It isn’t very harmful but it is annoying. The cure is to buy some higher-octane fuel and mix it in your tank. You can also carry around some octane booster (a little plastic bottle of fuel additive available at parts stores and some gasoline stations). Additives are simply poured into the tank, and should solve the engine knock instantly.

Synthetic Oil
There are two kinds of oil you can use, normal oil and synthetic oil. Regular oil is fine but synthetic is better. Synthetic oil also reduces fuel consumption, which goes some way to mitigating it’s high cost.

Synthetic oil also requires changing less frequently. You have to make the call on what you buy. If you can’t make up your mind there are ready mixed options that contain a percentage of synthetic oil.

Check under the car for bolts that may have loosened
Every day if possible or at least once a week get under the car and take a quick look. Just like checking the coolant level, this task must be done when the car is cold as the exhaust will burn you otherwise. It is often much safer to do this in a parking spot than on the highway when passing traffic can be an extreme hazard. If something is loose tighten it, if bolts are is missing or if there is unusual play in a part take it to a mechanic and get it checked out.

Cleaning the vehicle, special note on salt
Wash your car fairly regularly although a good coverage of dirt often deters robbery and often mans that police checks are slightly less rigorous. If you are traveling in a coastal area or on salt flats, be vigilant and wash your car much more regularly to prevent rust.

Catalytic converters and leaded fuel
If you have a catalytic converter you should not use leaded fuel as it can really damage it. If your catalytic converter is damaged or needs replacement you have the option to replace it with a normal muffler. This will increase your power at the minimal expense of the environment. If you choose to do make this change, you should note that the catalytic converter contains some very expensive metals – worth trading!

Fuel Filters
Check gasoline or diesel filter frequently and replace if necessary. Keep an eye out for water in the filter which may happen in extremely wet conditions, such as those on some less advanced Caribbean islands. To combat this you can add a second filter to alleviate extreme condensation issues. Glass filters are often used which can be opened and emptied to remove water.

Water may be condensing from your own fuel tank but most likely it came from the storage tank in the last gas station. Eliminating water is advisable. One way to do this is to pour it out of the filter, then clean the fuel tank at the next mechanics shop.

Cleaning your Fuel Tank
This procedure is quick and easy. The fuel plug at the bottom of the tank is removed and the remaining gasoline drained into a bucket to be strained later and used by the mechanic as part of their pay. Then an air hose is blown through the fuel filler eliminating crud and water. The plug is then put back on and the tank filled with clean fuel.

Lubricate Hinges, especially door hinges
It is a good idea to carry a bottle of WD-40 and squirt it on your door hinges every now and again after washing the car or in very dusty areas. It eliminates ugly squeaks.

Check distilled water level in battery
In older batteries visually inspect liquid levels if you are having battery problems. If acid/water mix is low (you can see something sticking out of the water) add distilled water. If you cant get distilled water use ice.

Visually inspect suspension, shake and rattle
Your suspension will have a hard time on dirt roads and it helps to prevent problems by getting under there and checking for loose elements. After a while you will get the hang of this and you might even spot a loose U-bolt thereby saving you from having to buy new parts.

Check rubber in tires
Visually inspect your tires regularly. The thread should be no less than the depth of the rim of a coin. If the thread is low then replace the tire — replace in pairs (both front or both back) and keep the best of the spares for emergencies if you have space.

Blowout Warning Signs
If you get a bad flat tire there will be a big hole. It is best not to repair these but to replace them immediately however sometimes you might make a repair in a remote area as a safety tire (in case another one blows). If you have to use this tire drive slowly and suspect a blowout. It will happen it is just a matter of time.

Check rubber belts
The belts on the front of your engine are both internal an external. The internal belt is called the timing belt and it needs to be changed about every 60,000Km. If you have done 60,000Km or slightly less and you don’t know whether it is OK replace it before leaving and forget about it, carry the old part as a spare.

The external belts are replaced much more frequently especially in hot dusty conditions. Visually inspect these once a week and always, always carry spares for all of them.


Friday, June 2nd, 2006

Already 70,000 kilometers into the trip, I find myself answering the same questions over, and over again. Inquiries come from friends back home, from backpackers and hitchhikers met along the way, from people still in the planning stage sending emails, or from the many locals I meet who marvel at seeing my license plate driving on their roads. The questions express genuine interest: how, from where, and via what route had I got there, oh and “It must be so beautiful!”? The answers to the first and last questions are the subject matter of this book.

Predictable though the questions may be, my arm needs little twisting to get me onto the topic of driving the Americas. I hope that this will never become a stale topic. More importantly, I hope that the information in this book will encourage more visitors from abroad to drive Latin America.

Independent travel dissolves barriers between people, enriching the lives of the traveler and those they visit. Whether traveling by road, bus, car, horse, or bicycle the open-minded traveler brings much into the lives of those they visit, but brings away so much more.

The scale and beauty of the sub-continent of Latin America are difficult to take in and next to impossible to imagine. Even those lucky enough to have had their lives enriched by traveling here will be lucky to absorb the extraordinary terrain and the beauty of Latin American people.

Getting off the beaten path often means difficult traveling conditions, but the results are priceless and often unexpected.

For me these include: arriving at nightfall into an Andean village in Peru at 4200m, and noticing the curious glances of the children, only to discover that they have never seen green eyes before and that the car we gad driven into town was the only one there. Sitting on a veranda being asked by a fully grown man whether the sun comes up in different place in different parts of the world; only to find yourself explaining that the volcanic crater in which he has spent his life, is next to the equator of a planet that is shaped like a sphere.

Imagine the joy of being introduced to your very first coral reef by a local Honduran dive-master, or reaching a 4,700m peak after crawling out of the jungles of the Amazon on a dirt road for a week only to have a coca chewing truck-driver stop and offer to take your photo in the snow?

Basic Preparations
So, what is important? What makes a trip like this a fabulous adventure and not the worst mistake of your short life? If you are planning to take a year or so of their lives to traverse a continent by road, some common sense advice can make a huge difference.

It may at first seem a little daunting, but don’t worry there are few mistakes that cannot be solved while on the road. In fact most of us, (myself included), are inclined to over prepare, to over plan, to take control of the uncontrollable. Paying attention to the smallest practicalities can make a huge difference, there are only a few basics you need to get sorted before you hit the road the rest can be taken care of later and often at less cost.

Traveling in the right car with the right paperwork, good maps, travel gear and a Spanish & Portuguese dictionary with a basic grasp of the local languages is a great start.

So don’t get freaked out! While safety is an issue while traveling in Latin America is much less dangerous than some people seem to think. Adventure writers make a career of describing the dangers of obscure locations. That’s their job. Excitement and suspense adds to the readability of their books, but back here in the real world safety is a little more mundane. For example, it can be much more important to your personal safety to shake out your boots in the morning for scorpions and religiously check the pressure in your tires, than to carry an automatic weapon for banditos, or a bowie knife just in case you are swallowed by an eight meter long anaconda. Brush your teeth with clean water and wear long sleeved tightly woven and loosely fitting clothes, there will be plenty of time to play at being Indiana Jones later.

Health and safety are important in long-distance travel but a little common sense goes a long way. The paranoid will face much more dangers in their mind’s eye, than they will in reality.

They’ll also most likely get themselves into much more trouble while having an awful time. If you can’t chill out than maybe, it is better to stay at home and watch nature programs on television?

Being aware of one’s environment is as key in Caracas as it is in New York or in Dublin. When a criminal chooses their victim, they often choose carefully, they sense weakness, and unease.

They will feel your fear or notice your relaxed confidence. This is their job and they are good at it. If they attack you they are taking a risk, because they fear their prospective victims too. For each actual assault, bribe request, or robbery there are hundreds of lucky others that sail by, avoiding such inconveniences. Confidence, awareness, and just the right amount of eye contact are a warning to those who make a living prowling the streets. You will be avoided if they feel that you might be too much trouble, if you look like you have nothing on you, or if they feel you might have friends in high places which could extend their jail-time drastically should they make the mistake of picking the wrong victim — you! Sure, this tactic is mostly bluff, but it is surprisingly effective.

If you are checking out some movies for research you might fare better reading Che Guevara’s book “The Motorcycle Diaries” than watching movies like “Salvador” or “Missing”.

Remember before you leave you will face endless questions and uncertainties, you may feel a little strange and alone. Most of your friends will look at you a little strangely and some might just come out and tell you that you are quite insane but this is normal. If this paranoia didn’t exist society would crumble and vacancies would open up all across the world in the best jobs imaginable. Someone has to keep the home fires burning, but now it’s not your turn. Once you have made the decision to proceed then you are half way there.

So get started! Get some cash together, buy a vehicle and get mobile. It isn’t easy but what life experience worth its salt really is? Traveling can be such incredible fun that you will wish you had started sooner!

Shortly before I left San Francisco I spoke to a gentleman from there who now lives in the gringo colony of Cusco, Peru. I asked him what he thought about my strange plan? His only regret was that he hadn’t discovered South America earlier in life. Think about it!

Once you get on the road your peer group changes. Time moves quicker for you than it did back home. You become a member of a select group of world travelers whose everyday experiences in the real world are quite extraordinary for those you have left behind. At first, it will all seem a little strange but then it will feel good.

In this electronic age emails and chat sessions, electronic banking and ATM machines make traveling a piece of cake and help you to keep in touch. Your family and friends will miss you, but for them, time will pass much more slowly than for you. Eventually you will stop asking them. “What’s new?” In your mind’s eye it may seem like their lives have stopped, but it is your sense of time that has changed not theirs.

Your mind’s eye will be filled with the endless jungles and the Andean splendor of the southern sub-continent. Living amongst such beauty, communicating with people whose life views are so different to yours will change you in ways that you may not expect. In fact, you may not notice it at all while it is happening but fear not, most of the changes will be for the better.

Travel isn’t all sunshine and roses but with a little planning, an open mind and eyes firmly set to the South maybe this can be an experience of lifetime that you will cherish forever.

By getting your basics straight up front, the trip will begin with the dice loaded in your favor. The vehicle, visas and paperwork, adequate funds, packing the vehicle correctly with what you need and leaving behind what you don’t, and finally and possibly most importantly, starting the trip with the right person! Get this 90% right and everything will work itself out just fine with Lady-luck on your side.

By getting your basics straight up front, the trip will begin with the dice loaded in your favor. The vehicle, visas and paperwork, adequate funds, packing the vehicle correctly with what you need and leaving behind what you don’t, and finally and possibly most importantly, starting the trip with the right person! Get this 90% right and everything will work itself out just fine with Lady-luck on your side.


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