March 7, 2016:
Warning: This is the only picture. Be prepared to read!
And now for the repair saga…like we told you last time, the van did not enjoy the fantastic mountain scenery and climbs nearly as much as its passengers.
On the drive from Palenque to Toniná, we experienced transmission difficulty. It wasn’t totally clear if the transmission was slipping, just failing to up-shift or both. The problem was fairly intermittent, but got more frequent. By the time we got to our intended campground outside Toniná, this problem seemed like one that had to be addressed before continuing the journey through the mountains. In addition, we noticed that our brakes had become soft, much as they had done after our long descent from the high plateau months earlier.
A cowboy rode up on a horse and after some discussion offered to escort us to a mechanic he knew in the nearby town of Ocosingo (about 8 miles away). In hindsight, it may have been a bad decision to rely on the guy traveling by horse for advice about a mechanic. But he got in the van and we headed back to town.
On the way there, the transmission symptoms continued, but the fact that our brakes were hardly working at this point became a much greater concern. So we pulled over, coincidentally right in front of an army base. The cowboy thought the best solution was to ask the soldiers for help (his son is in the military). Ultimately this meant that Laura and the cowboy gained permission to enter the heavily secured base and spent a while talking to a very fast-talking sergeant who attempted to help, but ultimately wasn’t able to offer any solutions. The base mechanic had left for the day and they didn’t know anyone locally to refer us to.
Incidentally, it occurred to us recently that this base, to the east of Ocosingo, is right in the heart of Zapatista activity in years past. There are no particular signs of tension, but the gate guards were well armed. And to dissuade anyone thinking these soldiers were carrying unloaded weapons, they (as well as many Federales and other police forces we have encountered) used see-through magazines so you can see the live rounds within. We have wondered whether this base was built to assert federal control in the region if necessary. Other than the existence of the base, however, there are virtually no signs of Federal authority, particularly police, in this region. Laura saw a sign at the gate telling soldiers they are not to wear their uniforms off base. It seems there is some sort of détante between the Federal authorities and the people of Chiapas, where the Republic isn’t being attacked openly. (The Zapatistas actually declared war against the Republic.) To a large extent, there is autonomous self rule. But this is only the poorly evidenced opinion of a couple of transient outsiders. And a total digression from our story.
Striking out with the soldiers, the cowboy decided to take matters into his own hands. He flagged down a passing truck and told us he’d bring the mechanic to us – great! While waiting for his return, local municipal cops pulled up behind us, poked around under the hood and offered to follow us to a mechanic. But as we had someone on the way, we thanked them and waited. Ultimately our cowboy escort and his mechanic cousin? brother-in-law? returned. The took a look, and decided that they would do their work right there on the street, but by then the brakes had cooled off and were working OK, so we agreed that it would be better to drive to town to their shop.
It turned out that their shop was really just a small, filthy oily dirt floored courtyard surrounded by high walls and a couple of rooms to serve as office and storage. There they took a closer look.
They decided that the reason our brakes had gone soft on these occasions was that the back brakes were out of adjustment, making the front disc brakes do all the work, and therefore overheating. They “adjusted” our back brakes. Or at least they took the wheels off and cleaned the brakes. We didn’t catch much adjustment actually happening. We’ll see how that goes the next time we spend a few hours driving in the mountains.
As to the transmission, they determined that we were low on transmission fluid – hence the failure to properly shift. Great, a cheap solution. Although, the fluid level seemed to us to be within the indicated range on the dipstick. But we’re no experts, and there’s certainly a desire to believe an authoritative explanation that get you out of rebuilding a transmission.
Of course, this being Mexico, the shop didn’t have any automatic transmission fluid, so they told us we would have to give them some money and they would run out and buy some. It took a while for Laura to explain that before she was going to give the guy any money, she wanted to know how much the fluid would cost. He said 200 pesos should cover it. Laura said OK, gave him a 200 peso note, and asked that he bring the change and an itemized receipt. When he returned with 3 bottles of fluid, he handed Laura a receipt that said “transmission fluid – $200”. What a coincidence! After being charged more than they had agreed to on the side of the road (aprox. $42 instead of $33), we left them with naive hope.
The next day we toured the ruins at Toniná (as previously posted) and continued on our journey. We got back to town and then the whole transmission thing started again. We figured the guys who had done the “mechanic” work the day before were of no use and so we stopped and asked a guy if he knew anyone who worked on automatic transmissions. Lo and behold, a shop specializing in transmissions was just up the road. The shop did not look like much. There were a bunch of broken down cars in the yard and a couple of fierce-looking barking dogs (that were chained). But the transmission guy came out and spent a decent amount of time driving around with us attempting to analyze the problem. He was a little older, and more confidence- inspiring. He said that he was fairly sure we had a bad speed sensor, and this was causing the transmission to fail to shift into second gear when it should. When we were able to rev it up enough to get to about 30 MPH, the transmission would smoothly shift right into third. He could do the repair, but he would have to drive a few hours to another town to get the part, and then drive a few hours back (without absolute certainty this was the problem).
He also thought we could get to our next destination, San Cristóbal de las Casas, without doing any further damage or breaking down, and he recommended a shop there where we could get the work done. He bade us a safe journey, hopped out and said goodbye – he didn’t ask us for any money for his time.
So again, we set off. The problem continued, but didn’t get any worse (Although perhaps the suspension was developing some new quirks). We got to San Cristóbal, where we had already planned to spend the next week. Upon stopping by the room to drop off some things, we met Lupe, who, with his wife, take care of the 4 room property where we were staying. Lupe also drives a taxi, and he (without prompting) recommended the same transmission guy that the transmission specialist in Ocosingo had. Good sign.
We had arrived late Saturday afternoon and found the recommended shop closed. But it was handily located near a Sam’s Club and so we went in and received enthusiastic permission from the manager to park in their lot for the weekend (just like Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs in the US, overnight RV parking is usually allowed and free). We left our house in the Sam’s Club parking lot, took a taxi into the center of town, and enjoyed a couple of days of relaxation.
On Monday morning, we went back to the shop, met the recommended gent and explained the problem. Actually, we explained a few different problems. We were hoping to take care of a few things all at once while we were staying in one place for a week and not sleeping in the van. This included a lot of bounce and noise in the suspension (of course there would be after driving over a million topes and potholes) and some electrical stuff. The first impressions of the shop were good. The space was fairly clean, there were relatively expensive vehicles being worked on, and the head mechanic (called “Maestro” by his subordinates) even brought out a computer and plugged it into the dash to take a look at the readings.
We were assured that they could take care of most of this and would call us once they knew what the problem was and how much it would cost. Then his staff documented what problems we reported and noted any body damage on a form that we signed and took a copy of before we left – much like at a dealership in the US. This was much more reassuring than the goofballs that worked on our house in Ocosingo.
We heard nothing from them on Monday or Tuesday morning, so Laura called on Tuesday afternoon to check in. They were working on it. We called again on Wednesday. The report was that they had made some adjustments to the transmission and wanted us to go with them on a test drive to see what we thought of its performance. We went to the shop and learned that they hadn’t yet addressed the suspension issue. Possibly we could have made this work more smoothly by asking more questions, but we didn’t. So we waited for about 3 hours while they did the suspension work before we went on the test drive. This work took place in the street outside the shop (pictured above), as there was no room for the van inside the shop. The guys had a really hard time getting the front shocks out, largely because they were working without any kind of power tool. Labor is cheap here, tools are not. These three hours also included us going with one of the young guys in the shop to a parts store to buy the shocks, a process which took a bizarrely long time (about an hour). Finally the shocks were in and the test drive could commence! It’s not perfect (the transition between gears is a little rough), but perfection would require rebuilding the transmission, something that is not necessary at this point (and hopefully won’t be for 10s of thousands of miles). So far, everything seems to be working. And the new shocks (Even if they aren’t necessarily the right shocks. Does installation generally require a grinder?) have made a nice improvement to the ride. They also replaced the sway bar links as one of them had fallen off somewhere along the line. That would explain some of the front end noise. . .
Here’s the kicker – for all that work and the parts (which included a new transmission speed sensor, new spark plugs, sway bar links, and the four shocks), we paid about $150. We paid more for the four shocks than for all the rest of the labor and parts combined.
These guys don’t do electrical work though and so after getting the van back, we took it to a repair shop that specializes in all things electrical (a referral by the transmission guy). Here’s an aside about referrals – it’s been our repeated experience that when someone wants to refer you to an associate, they don’t just say, “Tell ’em Dave sent ya!” like we would in the States. Instead, they want to go with you to the place to make introductions. It seems kind of antiquated, almost Victorian, but honestly it’s pretty cool.
We brought the electrical shop three issues: the fan switch on the A/C was failing; the gas gauge doesn’t work and a problem with the stereo. These experts were able to address one of these three issues, the fan switch. But frankly this was the one that we were most concerned about. The mechanic in Playa del Carmen who replaced our fuel pump said we needed a new part for the fan switch, but he didn’t have one. The shop in San Cristóbal said we needed a new part, and they didn’t have one, so they fixed the one we had. It might not last forever, but it works fine now. They couldn’t fix the gas gauge (and they disagreed with the PDC mechanic as to the cause) or the stereo, which we’ll need to replace at some point. They spent a few hours working and charged us less than $12.
This whole thing was a gigantic pain in the backside, in part because none of these guys spoke 2 words of English and the vocabulary of auto repair is new to Laura. For example, sway bar links are called “cacahuates” (peanuts). But it didn’t cost us much money. And we had the opportunity to talk to a bunch of different very nice people who were extremely eager to help us (perhaps especially those who stood to gain by helping us?) As interesting as that was, we hope that we don’t need to visit any mechanics any time soon!
And to ensure that, we’ve stayed put in San Cristóbal de las Casas for a few more weeks. This is not to avoid driving, but because we really like it here. And you’ll get to read all about that soon.
And there will be pictures. We promise!