• Monday , 26 June 2017
Broke down in Bolivia blues

Broke down in Bolivia blues

Two weeks tops, blast through Bolivia and on to Patagonia for some serious trout fishing and alpine adventure. But, Bolivia had other plans for us, and once she had us in her embrace we found ourselves having to claw our way out six weeks later. Our last day, with sights set on Chile, we found ourselves lost in the wilderness, fixing a flat tire as the sun set, and arriving after dark to a remote frontier border crossing that had already closed for the day. We wild camped off the side of the dirt track with both bikes stuck in deep sand as we waited through the night for the border to open in the morning. Bolivia became family to us and like it or not, family attaches to the soul.

The beach town of Copacabana, Bolivia is on Lake Titicaca. While it may look inviting for a swim the temperature is slightly above freezing and the forecast calls for snow overnight.

The beach town of Copacabana, Bolivia is on Lake Titicaca. While it may look inviting for a swim the temperature is slightly above freezing and the forecast calls for snow overnight.

La Paz was was a little too big and busy for us so we found a quite camp a few miles out of the city.

La Paz was was a little too big and busy for us so we found a quite camp a few miles out of the city.

In the way back and beyond somewhere between Cochabamba and Sucre the dirt road we were on suddenly turned to cobble-stone, for a staggering 41 miles! The rocks for the construction came from the river valley far below. We wonder how long it took to build this handmade masterpiece?

In the way back and beyond somewhere between Cochabamba and Sucre the dirt road we were on suddenly turned to cobble-stone, for a staggering 41 miles! The rocks for the construction came from the river valley far below. We wonder how long it took to build this handmade masterpiece?

The first sign we were no longer in Peru were the drivers. Bolivian drivers lack the suicide gene common in Peru and we were able to ride without the “death race 2000” mentality we had grown accustomed to in Peru. We left Lake Titicaca behind for La Paz, Cochabamba, and Sucre as we made our way to the Salar de Uyuni in southern Bolivia. After three nights in Sucre we loaded the bikes for an early start, paid our hotel bill, and hopped onto our bikes. Shannon’s bike refused to start. It refused to even stutter or backfire so we moved back into the room we had vacated a half hour earlier and our residence status in Sucre began.

We found this angry fellow drinking beer behind a bush. When I refused to give him any spare change he showed his teeth and those dirty ass fingernails.

We found this angry fellow drinking beer behind a bush. When I refused to give him any spare change he showed his teeth and those dirty ass fingernails.

In the footsteps of giants. Dinosaur footprints left on an ancient seashore. Sucre. Bolivia.

In the footsteps of giants. Dinosaur footprints left on an ancient seashore. Sucre. Bolivia.

More Dino prints in Sucre.

More Dino prints in Sucre.

Little did we know the weekend we arrived in Sucre was the biggest party of the year. The parades and marching bands started in the morning and went until 5am.

Little did we know the weekend we arrived in Sucre was the biggest party of the year. The parades and marching bands started in the morning and went until 5am.

Sucre loves a party.

Sucre loves a party.

Fuel/air, spark, and compression; the holy trinity of internal combustion engines and all were suspect at this point. The tools came out and Shannon’s bike Zippy was disassembled piece by piece. Mike’s bike, the Black Donkey, became the test platform as components like the carburetor, CDI, ignition coils, switches, and relays were moved over and tested. If the Donkey ran with a Zippy part that part was deemed “not the problem”. On the third day of trouble shooting a smoking gun was found. A small electrical device called a pulse coil, a component of the stator assembly, which lives in a sea of motor oil in permanent darkness inside the engine, tested bad with the OHM meter. The pulse coil’s sole job is to tell the bikes computer when to spark; without a working pulse coil Zippy would never run again.

Suzuki Bolivia in La Paz could get an entire stator assembly (which includes the itty-bitty pulse coil) in as little as 60-days and for a mere US$650. The pulse coil alone is not available from Suzuki. Not good. Another couple of days scouring the internet and asking contacts on social media we had our answer, a Suzuki DR650 pulse coil was made of unobtainium in Bolivia and could not be had for any price. The pulse coil via DHL from the US took two weeks, favors from many friends, some helpful strangers along the way, and an overnight bus ride to finaly receive our new part in Sucre, Bolivia.

While we waited for our parts to arrive both bikes got new chains and sprockets and the Black Donkey got some new tires as well. We made friends in Sucre and were invited to the home of a Bolivian motorcycle mechanic I had befriended in my mission to get Zippy running. We slept late, ate good, and read a lot of books. We became the resident expats of the hotel and were the unofficial greeters to the guests that arrived each day. Shannon went native and shopped in the market like all the other Bolivian women and soon found a favorite baker, produce seller, butcher, and egg wholesaler.

As we were basically living in Sucre as Mike tried to get the motorcycle fixed, Shannon went native and did all her shopping where the locals went. This is her favorite vegetable stand. As the weeks rolled on the prices she was paying went from cheap to almost free.

As we were basically living in Sucre as Mike tried to get the motorcycle fixed, Shannon went native and did all her shopping where the locals went. This is her favorite vegetable stand. As the weeks rolled on the prices she was paying went from cheap to almost free.

Batman may have the bat phone in Gothom City but Sucre does it one better with the highly specialized green dino phone available for public use and non-emergencies any time of day.

Batman may have the bat phone in Gothom City but Sucre does it one better with the highly specialized green dino phone available for public use and non-emergencies any time of day.

Safety first. Sucre's crossing guards are all dressed like zebras. They are an energetic and vocal herd for sure.

Safety first. Sucre’s crossing guards are all dressed like zebras. They are an energetic and vocal herd for sure.

Ricardo is a mechanic in Sucre and he helped me find parts I needed for the motorcycles. We became friends and one Sunday he invited Shannon and I to his home in the country to meet his family.

Ricardo is a mechanic in Sucre and he helped me find parts I needed for the motorcycles. We became friends and one Sunday he invited Shannon and I to his home in the country to meet his family.

Finally one bright Spring morning our DHL package arrived. After the high fives and happy dances I opened up the left side of the engine, cut out the bad pulse coil, and soldered in the new part, green wire to green wire and blue wire to blue wire just like the dealer in the US insisted the part be installed.

Giddy with anticipation we all gathered around Zippy to see her roar to life. Nothing, no change, no start, same shit as before. My confidence as a mechanic was shaken. Had I not diagnosed the problem correctly and because of my mistake waited two weeks for a part that didn’t fix the problem? Ouch.

I am still smiling because the repair is still in its first few days. Nearly a month would go by before that bike was fixed and the frustration grew by the day.

I am still smiling because the repair is still in its first few days. Nearly a month would go by before that bike was fixed and the frustration grew by the day.

Now the real work began. I knew I had a weak, mistimed spark so therefore the problem was rooted in the electrical arena. For the next week I cleaned every connection, verified every circuit, inspected every wire, fixed small wiring issues that were done incorrectly at the Suzuki factory, rebuilt portions of the wire harness, and moved almost every electrical component off my working bike over to Zippy. And, still no dice. I was desperate. And, the only thing left to try was to open up my working bike and move over the entire stator assembly. This final solution would entail a complete swap off all electrical components from one bike to the other. I was not looking forward to this.

On the day this invasive procedure was to commence I tried one last test at Shannon’s insistence. I switched the blue and green wires from the new pulse coil and reconnected them green to blue and blue to green. I had been emphatically told not to do this by a Suzuki professional and was told multiple times the problem must lie elsewhere in the ignition system. After swapping the wires I hit the starter button and Zippy fired once, backfired, and quit. This is more than I had seen in three weeks so I rushed to put the fuel tank back on and fill the carburetor with fresh gas. The second attempt, now with fuel, and Zippy roared to life. The patient had recovered after a month of hopelessness.

Every part of the electrical system was gone over again and again looking for the fault.

Every part of the electrical system was gone over again and again looking for the fault.

Once Zippy was running it still took another day to put everything back together again.

Once Zippy was running it still took another day to put everything back together again.

We finally made it to the Salt Flats of Uyuni and made real the dream of camping in the vast wilderness in an endless sea of white salt.

Tio is lord of the underworld and the protector of the miners around Potosi, Bolivia. In the United States we would call him the devil. The mines here are brutal affairs and life expectancy for the workers here is short owing to cave-ins, injury, and silicosis of the lungs.

Tio is lord of the underworld and the protector of the miners around Potosi, Bolivia. In the United States we would call him the devil. The mines here are brutal affairs and life expectancy for the workers here is short owing to cave-ins, injury, and silicosis of the lungs.

Buying gasoline in Bolivia is a real pain in the ass. Locals get cheap gas that is subsidized by the government and foreigners have a different rate that is more than three times the cost, but this is not the problem. The problem is that the paperwork the government requires the gas station to fill out for gas sold to foreigners is cumbersome, time consuming, and the software at the pump rarely wants to approve the transaction. The work-around? don't sell gas to foreigners. Yup, you heard it right, you pull up to the pump and they will often flat out refuse to sell you gasoline. My work around? I bought an empty 20 liter vegetable oil container (green jerry can in the picture) and would walk up to gas stations in my street clothes, without my motorcycle. No one said no and I was charged the local rate 9 times out of ten. My other trick was to only speak in Spanish and have my cheek stuffed with coca leaves like all the other local men. When in Rome...

Buying gasoline in Bolivia is a real pain in the ass. Locals get cheap gas that is subsidized by the government and foreigners have a different rate that is more than three times the cost, but this is not the problem. The problem is that the paperwork the government requires the gas station to fill out for gas sold to foreigners is cumbersome, time consuming, and the software at the pump rarely wants to approve the transaction. The work-around? don’t sell gas to foreigners. Yup, you heard it right, you pull up to the pump and they will often flat out refuse to sell you gasoline. My work around? I bought an empty 20 liter vegetable oil container (green jerry can in the picture) and would walk up to gas stations in my street clothes, without my motorcycle. No one said no and I was charged the local rate 9 times out of ten. My other trick was to only speak in Spanish and have my cheek stuffed with coca leaves like all the other local men. When in Rome…

An endless sea of salt. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt pan in the world and we had a blast exploring the wasteland and camping in this strange and wonderful wilderness.

An endless sea of salt. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt pan in the world and we had a blast exploring the wasteland and camping in this strange and wonderful wilderness.

The wind was too strong to actually camp on the salt so we found shelter on an uninhabited island. From camp we saw a single truck driving on the salt many miles away, other than this sighting we were absolutely alone in one of the wildest places we have ever been.

The wind was too strong to actually camp on the salt so we found shelter on an uninhabited island. From camp we saw a single truck driving on the salt many miles away, other than this sighting we were absolutely alone in one of the wildest places we have ever been.

Shannon looking for a better spot to park her bike.

Shannon looking for a better spot to park her bike.

The remains of a steam train. Uyuni, Bolivia.

The remains of a steam train. Uyuni, Bolivia.

Uyuni, Bolivia.

Uyuni, Bolivia.

Bolivia grew on us and we are glad to have gotten to know this place on an intimate level. It is now time to make up lost days if we are to make Ushuaia on schedule. Moving again under our own steam has given us both renewed energy and the joy of riding our motorcycles has returned ten-fold after being broke down in Bolivia.

We got a little turned around and behind schedule on the way to the Chilean frontier. We were pushing hard to make the border by nightfall and then Shannon's rear tire went flat.

We got a little turned around and behind schedule on the way to the Chilean frontier. We were pushing hard to make the border by nightfall and then Shannon’s rear tire went flat.

This tiny sliver of metal went all the way through the tire and punctured the tube.

This tiny sliver of metal went all the way through the tire and punctured the tube.

Some creative re-routing was needed to get off of the dry lakebed we had been riding on for the last hour.

Some creative re-routing was needed to get off of the dry lakebed we had been riding on for the last hour.

While Mike fixed the tire Shannon actually found some dogs to play with. With our motorcycles being the only other moving things for miles around these pups came along way to see what we were doing on their dry lakebed.

While Mike fixed the tire Shannon actually found some dogs to play with. With our motorcycles being the only other moving things for miles around these pups came a long way to see what we were doing on their dry lakebed.

A typical road in on the Bolivian Frontier. The sand slowed us down to a crawl and made for a very long day.

A typical road in the Bolivian Frontier (for us anyway). The sand slowed us down to a crawl and made for a very long day.

We finally reached the border just as it was getting dark, and it was closed for the day. We were forced to make a dry camp in the desert and we wanted to be sure we couldn't be seen from the road. We found a slight depression so we could get out of the relentless wind. The next morning the sand was too deep to ride out so we we were forced to unload the motorcycles and push them out a few feet at a time. The elevation was near 13,000 feet here and this was exhausting work.

We finally reached the border just as it was getting dark, and it was closed for the day. We were forced to make a dry camp in the desert and we wanted to be sure we couldn’t be seen from the road. We found a slight depression so we could get out of the relentless wind. The next morning the sand was too deep to ride out so we we were forced to unload the motorcycles and push them out a few feet at a time. The elevation was near 13,000 feet here and this was exhausting work.

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