On Breaking Down and Being Lifted Back Up - Dedicated to Pinky Tosi

Last we touched base with you, our ever-faithful reader, we were leaving the land grab spot of Mount Fitzroy cum Climbing town of El Chalten and pursuing our route up north. We hoped to make a solid dash across Argentina, through some old stomping grounds and Buenos Aires, and be on our way to Brazil within a few weeks. We already made plans for Shannon to fly out of São Paulo to the States so that she could be there for her first niece’s birth, so we had an end date and a schedule to keep! Let’s go!

On our way out of El Chalten, we passed the familiar lineup on the shoulder of the road of hitchhikers, looking to catch a ride north along the famous Ruta 40. We decided to pick up a couple of them, one German diet specialist and an Israeli who was financing his voyage by playing poker in casinos throughout South America. That they both ostensibly had money, but decided to hitch and not chip in for gas cemented my view on today’s hitchhikers…look out for the dedicated follow-up post on this coming next! We hauled these two, ourselves, and Masi back to a favorite wild camp spot along Ruta 40- next to a river in a quiet cleared area. Decent conversation, a roaring fire, and increasingly good home cooking from us two (our spice game was really starting to get on point) made for a good night in the wilderness. In the morning we cooked breakfast, packed up, and were ready to go except for these two hitchers taking their time…ugh, we were tempted to leave them just for their bad manners. We wanted to make it close to the Chilean border town of Perito Moreno that day and had a lot of KM to cover.

Eventually we did get on the road, and made it all the way to Perito Moreno- a sleepy border town with not much to report. We dropped off the two hitchers, wished them well, despite once again not getting an offer of a little gas money after more than 500km of chauffeuring them. Although we were miffed at once again having bad hitchers, I was mainly concerned with a now-feared feeling coming from the accelerator pedal and engine…what some in the VW community call the “dreaded bog” in relation to performance. Press on the accelerator and there’s a hesitation, followed by nothing, followed by an uptick in RPMs, followed by a slowdown. It’s like there’s chewing gum all over the acceleration system, and it just gets worse and worse. Of course correlation is not causation, but I can’t help feeling like the extra two meat sacks (and their luggage) in the Kombi for over 500 km were to blame.

After camping in the nicest municipal campground we’ve encountered the entire trip (side note: they had free gas stoves there, and the Argies who used them would NOT turn them off after use, meaning out of eight stove tops it was not unusual to see four of them on full blast with blue flames shooting up and NO ONE around- so weird and unsafe), we continued up north back to our absolute FAVORITE camping spot in Trevelin at Sergio’s eco-vineyard. We covered some fairly uneventful miles and pulled into Sergio’s with our fingers and toes crossed he had room for us, and luckily he met us with a smile and a camping spot for the next four days. His place is truly an oasis for overlanders, and I cannot speak highly enough of his hospitality, the tranquility of camping there and how relaxing it is. While there, we met an American family traveling in their Infinity SUV they shipped down from Albuquerque (anyone considering overlanding in SA, we think this is a supremely bad idea…besides being likely more expensive just to ship than buy, there are zero Infinity cars down here, meaning no parts if something goes wrong). We exchanged travel tips with them, played Möllky together on the huge green vineyard lawn, drank beers together, and even broke in Sergio’s new brick & clay pizza oven with my first ever attempt at pizza from scratch. I must say, I made a delicious friggin' pizza.

Before leaving Sergio’s I also resolved to fix the dreaded bog issue, or at least get to the heart of it so that I could describe the fix to a mechanic. I read blog after blog on what it could be (think: google medical symptoms and how you’ll self-diagnose the plague), checked our VW Idiot’s manual along with detailed German motor maps. After a few days of tinkering, taking apart and reassembling the carburetor (not easy for me), and adjusting some fuel mix settings…I made the noise and feeling go away!!! It was like being a magician, or the smartest man in the world for just one minute. Oh how I was proud.

As they say, pride before the fall.

It turns out, not to bury the lede here, that the ultimate issue was not at all the carburetor, fuel, or mix involved as most postings would have me believe, but was actually due to a failing valve in our engine (please DM me if you’d like a detailed explanation). What transpires in the next six weeks or so, we fixing everything but the issue which leads to disastrously un-fun times.

Here’s what happened next: we leave Trevelin/Esquel area, and soon enough are back on the road and I begin to feel the dreaded bog creeping back into the pedals. The sound is terrible, the engine is choking, and the performance is abysmal. Indeed, I did not nip anything in the bud as I suspected previously. We hoped to hop straight from Sergio’s camping spot, to another favorite campground up in Bariloche, but Masi was not having it, so we ended up back in my least favorite fake hippie town of El Bolson- this time it was summer and the camp ground was swamped! We lurched into a spot, and right off I got busy trying to remedy what was not-the-actual-problem and had little success. I re-regulated the valves, advanced and retarded the timing, checked the fuel lines, replaced filters, replaced spark plugs, changed idle and fuel mix again…all without much effect, of course.

Shannon and I were feeling down and out, considering options and about to start asking after mechanics, when all of a sudden…Bridget jumps from around a corner and does a little jazz hands “hey it’s me” kind of number. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but it turned out that Brendan and Bridget had finished climbing in Piedra Parada (where we had been previously with them on our way South), and were on their way back to Buenos Aires to sell their beloved T3 VW, and stopped into Bolson for a pit stop on the way. How fortuitous and just the bright spot we needed! We spent a few days catching up and drinking and laughing before they had to head off once again without us, but we made plans to hang out in BA before we moved onto Brazil and them back to Sydney. We couldn’t travel with them because, well, Masi was refusing to budge at this point. A local mechanic came to the campsite, after no less than a dozen others refused, and towed Masi to his garage. His expert take was that too much gasoline was making its way to the cylinders and drowning out the spark. He was wrong. He fixed something, we replaced the spark plugs again (with the wrong kind), and drove off feeling tenuous at best about Masi’s shape.

It wasn’t long on the road to Bariloche before Masi was up to her old tricks again: hesitating badly, not wanting to go up hills at all, lacking any power whatsoever. We kept pulling over for small adjustments, 20 minutes at a time, that seemed to move her down the road another 30/40/50km each time…but it was getting worse. I was adding more air, then fuel, then current (nifty trick of shorting the main battery and adding another transfer to the coil), but nothing had a lasting effect. And then…I felt a crack come from within the gear box and suddenly I was making large circles with the shifter and was stuck in third gear (better than fourth, not as good as second!). I pulled Masi over, parked her facing down a hill, in case we had to push start her- and we did-, and inspected the issue. I had no clue. The engine was dying and I only had one gear. We push started her down the hill and I built up enough speed to make third gear work and we prayed we could make it the next 70km into Bariloche and find a mechanic. We made it exactly 58km before encountering a hill sufficiently big enough to stall us out. First tow of the trip! We paid a relatively small amount, by US standards, for the tow and looked up a VW mechanic in Bariloche to get dropped off at upon arrival. Thus started one of the coolest couple weeks of our entire trip.

PRO TIP- if you’re driving a VW and stopping in Bariloche there is but one man to see there, and his name is Pinky Tosi. Factually, Pinky worked on VWs for decades, knows everything there is to know about Kombi motors, and has a workshop stocked with everything one would need to build a new Kombi from the ground up- from industrial torque wrenches to spare engine blocks. Personally, Pinky is the man. He severely injured his back years ago in a head-on collision (he was clinically dead for a bit, but that’s his story to tell), and while he can’t directly work on VWs anymore, he will instruct, mentor, and teach you anything you need to know about fixing it yourself under his watchful eye.

As the tow truck pulled in, he came out and welcomed us in as friends and informed me that this was place the place to get Masi fixed, and that another couple of Kombinauts (who were in a similar situation) would be our companions and novice mechanical buddies for the foreseeable future. Pedro, from Switzerland, and Eva, from Lima were also traveling the continent in their awesome T2 and were broken down, so we’d be helping each other out for a while and Pinky would tell us how. Over the next couple weeks, Pedro and I helped each other pull engines out, take them apart, put them together, clean, sand, polish, make parts runs, and do everything we could to make our Kombis run again. They had new cylinders to put in, not a small task at all, and Pinky identified our issue (within seconds) as having a broken selector (the little articulated finger that chooses gears) and we needed to pull the engine and part of the transmission to get to it. The mechanical tutelage was priceless, mostly fun, and always given in a generous and selfless manner. Imagine in the United States, two strangers pulling up and someone devoting the better part of their every day to instructing them on how to fix it…without ANY mention of money? This man Pinky was working on his canonization.

We did finally pull apart Masi, and Pedro’s T2 named “Chota”, and put them back together. Pinky signed off on the results, Masi was running well and the gears felt like brand new. Before leaving, we all pitched in to buy supplies for a famous “pollo al disco”, or basically a chicken dish cooked over a fire with massive amounts of butter and white wine and garlic. Saying that it was “rich” is an understatement. Add bottles of red wine, for us, not the chicken, and at least one bottle of whiskey, meant that us merry gang were up until 2am in Pinky’s garage laughing and arguing about the state of the world (my Spanish experienced an inverse relationship with amount of alcohol consumed). Pinky outlasted us all, and I think outdrank us all as well, and the following day even made Pedro and I coffee with whiskey in the morning to chase our unbelievable hangovers away. It was truly a special time at Pinky’s and we’ll never be able to thank him enough for everything he did for us, allowing us to crash in front of his place, welcoming us into his home and garage, and giving us memories that will last a lifetime. Thank you Pinky, much love from us, and we will set a similar example for Kombi travelers when we make it back to the

With much sadness we pressed on from Bariloche, half-hoping that everything was sorted. As I stated previously, this was not to be the case. Despite fixing the gear box and selector issue, the blown valve (which was still undiagnosed) was still there. After a troublesome exit from Bariloche- far enough away not to turn around, and close enough to feel super frustrated- Masi and the dreaded bog became reacquainted. A night spent in a wild camp, a morning of me re-re-regulating the valves that now showed me something was seriously off with our clearance there and cementing that more work needed to be done…and we pressed on.

Here’s an easy trick to move this all along, I’ll just paraphrase: a few more camp spots in the next few days as we could only move about 20-30km at a time due to overheating valves and loss of compression, I fear breaking then sucking in valve/ring pieces to engine block and cam shaft, we give up in Puelches (millions of Puelches, Puelches for me, millions of Puelches, Puelches for free, LOOK OUT), take a second tow into next town called General Acha, proceed to have worst week and a half of our entire trip while waiting for valves to be rectified and camping outside a dusty sandy mechanic office.

Highlights of General Acha and its awfulness: Juan Manuel the mechanic will tell you that he’s working on your ride, but will actually take a five hour siesta instead, everyone takes five hour siestas, the Petrobras gas station has aircon, wifi and decent medialunas making it the coolest place to hang out, no toilets or showers (except for when the kind asado grill restaurant owner let us shower inside his restaurant), and at night (like a biblical plague) large frogs come out of nowhere so they can get run over and add to that “murder town” feeling that we enjoy.

When I say that this was one of the worst places I’ve been, was treated very poorly in comparison to other places I’ve been, and only respect this place for giving me a definitive answer to the question, “worst place in South America?”, please know that I’ve done some traveling and putting my stamp on this town comes with weight.

I’ll spare you the nitty gritty of how we got our valves packaged, sent to the next town for rectification, back to General Acha, and then inside Masi again…but suffice it to say that the second we were ready to go I peeled out of there with all the middle fingers up.

Do breakdowns provide for interesting new friends and stories and love and wonderfulness? Yes, 100%, for sure, Maestro Pinky proved that…but do they also provide opportunity for unscrupulous, non-VW, sheisty folk to try and take advantage of travelers? Also yes. This was a post about both.

Smooth sailing from here on out boys!