January 15-18: luck in different shapes and forms

We spent Jan. 15 at Hosteria Izhcayluma near Vilcabamba, and I ended up getting quite a lot of work done. The following morning we left together with Elizabeth, a backpacker from the Toronto area en route to Chile, who kept us company on la bestia‘s passenger seat.

 

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Around two hours after leaving Vilcabamba, we noticed a strange blobbing sound coming from la bestia‘s front axle. When we stopped, we saw hot grease dripping down both of her front wheels. At this point, however, I mistakenly thought that the liquid was brake fluid — and sure enough, a few minutes later her brakes had lost all power.

 

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We could hardly believe our luck when, after two hours of driving through completely uninhabited territory, we spotted several buildings just as la bestia was losing her brakes. Better still, the first building turned out to be a police station, and only seconds after we had come to a stop, community police officer Esgar Paladines came out to check whether everything was alright. He quickly diagnosed that, although the brakes were shot, the liquid on the tires was, in fact grease. He then called one of the village’s two mechanics, who arrived fifteen minutes later on an old motorcycle. After the mechanic–whose name I unfortunately failed to catch–had removed la bestia‘s front wheels, he suspected that due to excessive braking, the grease inside the wheel housing had overheated and partly been blown out, which in turn had damaged the brake fluid lines. While he was unable to open up the wheels to check on the grease, he managed to reconnect and then bleed the brake lines so that, after adding some fresh brake fluid I was carrying, we could at least continue our journey.

 

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Unsure how much I should offer the mechanic for his help, I gave him $40 — and it quickly became clear that he had expected much less. Before taking off we all posed for a group photo (from left to right): Officer Paladines, the good mechanic, yours truly, and the mechanic’s wife, who also doubled as his silent assistant.

 

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Unfortunately the blobbing sound continued, suggesting that the wheels were still bleeding grease. We carefully drove 20km to the next town and, after consulting with some residents, pulled into the lot of a local mechanic. Thankfully he was confident that he would be able to re-grease the left front wheel (which had bled most) and immediately began to work on it.

 

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Elizabeth and Harry had to take refuge in the partial shade of a parked truck.

 

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Martin of team Uyarak once told me that one needs a special wrench to remove a wheel housing. While that’s undeniably correct, it turned out that a screwdriver and a hammer can be just as effective…

 

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… and even though the scars left by these makeshift tools are definitely not pretty, the job got done, and ninety minutes later we were ready to get back on the road.

 

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We drove another three hours but eventually had to admit to ourselves that our initial plan–to cross into Peru on the same day–was unrealistic. The only town in southern Ecuador that held some promise of accommodation was (rather hilariously named) Zumba, one hour north of Peru. That’s where we stopped as the sun was setting quickly.

 

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Right across the street from the hostel several teams were playing bol, a sport very similar to volleyball but with only three players on each side and a net hung much higher. I ended up watching–cold beer in hand–until the lights went out at 8PM.

 

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The night was short as we were keen on reaching the border as early as possible. We left Zumba shortly past 6AM on Jan. 17 and continued south, crawling through foggy rain forests at speeds between 10km/h and 25km/h.

 

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The road from Zumba to La Balsa (the border checkpoint) is a dirt track across several creeks, interrupted every few hundred meters by mudslides and fallen rocks.

 

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La bestia did what she was built for, but I did not dare to push her to the limit given the recent troubles.

 

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We arrived at the border at 7:30AM, half an hour after it had been opened for the day. The Ecuadorian customs officer was still getting ready and the immigration officer was having breakfast and told us that he would check our passports when done, so we decided to join him rather than wait idly outside his shack.

 

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Once everyone had finished eating breakfast, leaving Ecuador took less than half an hour.

 

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Formalities on the Peruvian side were more elaborate and took just under an hour. The main reason for this was a(n otherwise hilarious; see above) customs officer who visibly struggled with the completion of a temporary car import permit, inviting Elizabeth and me into his air-conditioned container where he proceeded to fill in the form in painfully slow handwriting. I did not mind, though, as I was still in blissful shock over his failure to notice that Harry (for whom I did not have the required papers) was in the car — even though he had me open the rear hatch and then took an eternal minute inspecting the two slide-in boxes containing mainly clothes and hiking gear. Divine Harry did not move at all, and after all papers and photocopies had been obtained and inspected and stamped and signed, the officer lifted the bar and waived us through. And so we entered Peru.

 

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Road conditions improved markedly on the Peruvian side of the border, and the drive led past raging rivers and lush landscapes.

 

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Of course we could not resist stopping at this roadside waterfall, and Harry happily jumped in to cool off.

 

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We arrived in Chachapoyas (Amazonas) in the late afternoon, after almost twelve hours on the road. Elizabeth got a room in a backpacker hostel whereas Harry and I found a basic hotel on iOverlander where we are allowed to park on the patio.

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