Over breakfast we chatted about the plan. Wolf’s research indicated that part of our “highway hiccup” problem could be dirty electrical collections, and after tinkering a bit more with the van, we decided that the responsible thing to do would be to put off the big day hike we had hoped to accomplish and go see a mechanic for some help. We drove a few blocks back to the shop we had spotted the day before. We stopped in and told him that all we wanted to do was have him clean a few specific electrical connections, but unfortunately he didn’t have the right cleaner and sent us to a hardware store around the corner where we picked some up. We picked up the laundry we had dropped off the day before and I set about putting things away and packing lunches to take with us on an afternoon hike while Wolf set about cleaning the connections. We were both feeling good and responsible and had accomplished our goal. We ran one last errand and then started towards the trailhead, but somehow, things had gotten worse. Now the car seemed to have lost the ability to idle. The first minute or two after startup were ok, but then it wouldn’t maintain an idle, and stall out unless we were giving the engine a bit of gas. Somehow our issue had gone from bad to worse.
Halfway to the trailhead we turned around and went straight to the mechanic. He was headed off on his own set of errands and asked us to come back in an hour. Once he returned, we pulled the car into the garage and started trying to explain more of our issue – the initial highway hiccup issue, the new stalling at idle problem… Unfortunately, my ability to communicate about car maintenance is quite limited even in English, and adding a language barrier made the whole thing comical, involving lots of caveman talk and hand motions and sound effects. Our new mechanic friend dove in and started gunning the engine again and telling us that our problem was bad gas. He pulled our spark plugs which had looked perfect just two days before and now were jet black. He thought he found a problem with our fuel injectors (also fine when checked before leaving the states) and started pulling things apart, most of the time blaming the bad gas and claiming it was a common issue around there.
At some point, a nice German couple wandered into the shop, needing help repairing a busted side view mirror. They stayed and chatted with us for a while. Commiserating about the terrible roads, telling stories about their car trouble while travelling in Africa, and laughing about their US tour in a Vanagon during the 70s. They asked us over and over again if we were ok on money and did we need help paying for any repairs we needed. They made us feel better and reassured us that what we were doing was just part of the fun of travel :)
We hung out at the mechanic shop pretty much all day, Wolf’s happiest moments were spent petting the local cat. In the end, our mechanic friend told us there was no charge because he hadn’t been able to fix the problem. He probably just wanted to get rid of us. We gave him a bit of cash anyway and left without a solution. In the end, his diagnosis was that bad gas was causing our problem, but we couldn’t accept that. The idling problem had only started after we cleaned the electrical connections so something must have gone wrong then but we couldn’t figure it out. Resolving to spend another night there we found a little cabin off the main street with a parking spot just outside the front door – perfect to let Wolf do some troubleshooting the following day. I made a quick run to the hardware store when Wolf realized he needed an Ohm Meter (the poor clerk laughed as I tried to explain in Spanish what I was looking for).
We made dinner in the cabin that evening, and Wolf tinkered with the car for most of the evening. We fell asleep that night feeling a bit deflated that we would spend the following day, Christmas Eve, working on the car again.
The following morning, we woke up to a beautiful Christmas Eve day. After breakfast Wolf went to work on the car right away and I moved our Christmas tree into the house. Since we would be spending Christmas Eve there I figured we may as well make the best of it.
Wolf got a few responses from The Samba’s members, an online Volkswagen community that came to our rescue with suggestions for various tests to run and tweaks to try. We set out to walk about town – Wolf needed a few things from the hardware store and I planned to run a few errands and shop for Christmas Eve dinner. Pickings in the supermarket were slim and everything was expensive but I settled on a lentil-veggie soup with fresh bread. Strangely, they had whole pineapples which I picked up for dessert.
Wolf spent all day working diligently trying to come up with a solution to our idling problem. At this point we had learned enough about the highway hiccup issue, also known as “Vanagon Syndrome” that we decided we could live with it for a while if necessary. We did place an emergency order with Go Westy for a couple of items that we hoped would help fix it. Getting our order in just before they closed until after the New Year, we shipped the parts to a friend in Northern Argentina. Now we just wanted to get back to status quo and fix the idling issue. Eventually, Wolf removed our newly installed oxygen sensor, which did the trick. Perhaps not a permanent solution, but it would do the trick for now. Relieved, we salvaged what was left of the day with a hike out to a waterfall.
It had turned into a beautiful day and the views in the valley were beautiful. We sat by the water and reflected for a while before heading back to the cabin where we made dinner together and listened, on repeat, to the five Christmas songs I had on my computer. After dinner we watched The Hobbit, both falling asleep partway through.