Gas, Road Highs and Other Problems

9 June 2011

We section off our route into 250-350 kilometer chunks and think of them as day long rides. The bus is noisy and bumpy and as a group we are relatively new to constant road travel. The Europeans are particularly road shy due to the fact that growing up in Europe means never traveling much more than 700 km without feeling that you’ve arrived in a totally different culture and environment. The American is more seasoned, having traveled across the US five or six times she knows the road mentality: get on the highway and stay there, get through the initial antsy feelings and kinesthetic cravings for physical freedom, get through the six hour doldrums and brain fog until you break free of the feeling of being bound to a tin can and feel one with the rush of pressing forward and the high of catching the world dashing outside the window and the miles mounting on the odometer.

On the day when we reached our kilometer goal of getting just past Ankara and it was only 4pm (more than 4 hours earlier then we usually rolled into a suitable camping spot and scrambled to get our tent and other things set up in the waining light), we tasted that feeling of being close to road travel godliness. There were signs all around us—Istanbul 358 km, then 342 km, then 328 km, and then 310 km. It’s unclear who started it, but someone offered the comment, Let’s just go a little further, we have lots of daylight left and why not have less road to travel the following day when we planned to reach Istanbul and as a result real beds and friends and the possibility of socialization in the real world.

By 5pm we were experiencing oneness with the Combi and had it in our heads that if we made good time for the next few hours we could shoot like a bullet through the night and arrive in Istanbul by 11pm. And why not? It was Friday night and 11pm was still early enough to catch a drink with friends or to take a shower (heavenly!) and then sit clean and in a cozy well lit living room checking email from a wireless connection. . .it was the very thought of real civilization that drove us forward in a state of over excitement.

Also a driving force was the sheer quality of the road we were driving on. After the bumpy, badly pitched and windy roads of most of Turkey, we were on a real highway, with asphalt as smooth as a baby’s bottom, at least that’s what if felt like to us. With real speed and no worries about pot holes that appear out of no where, we hit the uphill stretches with power and confidence and instead of the “I hope we can” of the chug, chug, chugging engine as we mounted the higher altitudes. We sailed upwards, passing trucks and feeling pretty cocky to say the least.

That feeling lasted until Diego, who was driving, bragged to Aurel that when he punched the gas pedal, even as we rode uphill, the car roared forward with a bit of real force. “Regarde!” He told Aurel, who was sitting in the front seat enjoying a break from driving. Diego punched the gas again, but this time there was a weak wooshing sound and no powerful push. Aurel laughed, thinking Diego was doing this on purpose. Diego glanced at the needle on the gas gauge, which was pointing just above the one fourth line. He punched the gas pedal again. This time the sounds and feelings the bus emitted urged him instinctively to get over to the right side of the road. Aurel looked confused, his smile turned around on it’s main axis. The combi lost speed consistently through these half second moments, enough so that all of us were aware by the third beat that something wasn’t right. Diego pulled to the break down lane just as the engine put, put, puttered out.

The first thing he tried was to re-start the engine. No luck. “It sounds exactly like we’ve run out of gas,” was Diego’s first comment. He looked at the gauge again. “I was wondering why it’s been on one fourth for the last two hours.” And that’s when we had to cross the gas gauge off the shrinking list of well working parts. When you don’t have windshield wipers or an speedometer that doesn’t require a complicated algorithm based on its reading, your altitude, and the time of day to figure out what speed you are going, you get excited by working original parts.

Outside on the busiest highway in all of Turkey, cars were zipping by with a rush of wind and the body jolting sound of “SWOOSH!” ever few seconds. We stood on the side of the road behind the bus with our thumbs out wondering how far the next gas station was and why each time we stopped for gas and one or the other of us said, “We should really fill that reserve gas can we’ve got in the compartment under the seat in the back just in case,” the rest of us didn’t listen.

After about 40 cars, a small, boxy white Fiat from the early 80’s stopped. Three men were in the car, the driver an intense little man who nodded vigorously as we managed to say “No Benzene, Benzene finish!” in various ways in Turkish. He offered no reply but jumped into action with the energy of a rubber band. He bounced from his car to our tool bag which was overflowing with bad Afghan quality tools and various gadgets. Opening his gas tank, he first tried to siphon off some gas with a pipe from the windshield wiper pump. When that didn’t work, he threw open the hood to his car and started pulling hoses and wires out of their sockets, sucking on some of them and attempting to bring a bubble of gas up from his engine. The man uttered not one word.

Aurel dashed around trying to be helpful, but it was hard to anticipate what the guy was trying exactly to do. Finally after darting over to the bus, Aurel returned with something that would save us: a little Chinese made pump with a tiny hose on one side and two wires sticking off the other that he had been given to him just before he set out by an Afghan friend in Kabul. Aurel held the wires against the correct sides of the car battery, while our savior attached the pump to his gas line. In less than a minute, a fresh spring of yellow liquid was bubbling up from the little hose into a liter sized water bottle and within 3 minutes we had 3 whole liters of gas in our tank, enough to take us to the next gas station.

We were followed close behind by the white Fiat all the way to the station, a little too close for comfort through the 15 km stretch of road through the mountains that we had to drive to get to the gas station. We wondered why they were trailing us the whole way, but when we got to the rest stop, it was clear that they were just going the extra Turkish mile of making sure we got to where we were going ok. And it gave us the opportunity to get out the black and white camera and take their picture. Turned out a little blurry unfortunately.

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The Benzene Men

We were back on the road within an hour of realizing we’d run out of gas. Doing the math in our heads, we recalculated time and distance but came out with the same determination. Let’s get to Istanbul tonight! So we miss that last drink and the shower, at least we will sleep in a real bed, inside with a bathroom and how great will it be to wake up on Saturday morning already there?

Aurel drove us into the settling dusk. We chattered about things we would do when we hit the big city. Soon we were quietly riding together in the dark.

At 9pm it became clear that we were struggling to get up the hills again. At 9:15 Aurel started to crane his neck to listen to the engine (all the way in the back) as he accelerated. Diego and Molly, aware of the fact that the combination of the craned neck, upward and slightly sideways staring eyes and nervous mumblings from their driver and only experienced mechanical team member are a very bad sign, decided to remain in their hushed state. The Combi mounted the next hill like a swimmer struggling to get to the surface of the water for air. The clutch was revving and slipping and after a minute or two of struggling, Aurel swerved to the side of the road just as we finally reached the top of the hill. He pressed the gas pedal. The result was less than one would hope for to say the least. Our eyes jumped meekly to the gas gauge, hoping that we were perhaps just out of gas again? Not so lucky.

We opened the doors and stumbled out of the bus by the side of the dark, busy highway. Dreams of Istanbul melted down our frustrated and exhausted bodies and slinked back to the pavement where they belonged. That familiar and repetitive “SWOOOOOOSH!” seemed louder and prolonged by the darkness somehow. So many cars rushing where we couldn’t get to. Aurel and Diego fiddled with the engine for a few minutes while Molly hopped around in the chilly dark.

With it’s last bit of power, the Combi’s engine sent us down the hill in the breakdown lane and off the god-sent exit ramp that was just half a kilometer away and still sloping downhill. At the tollbooth halfway down we slowed to wave our little toll card against the sensor in order to pay. When Aurel pushed the gas again we heard a loud, POP! And then a sputtering sounded followed by a second POP! like a small explosion from the engine.

The stop light at the bottom of the off ramp at this hour of 10pm was green and not a soul was out on the streets of Sapanca (a small town 110 km outside of Istanbul) so we rolled right through. With the force of our momentum we were even able to make a right turn into a little parking area between a closed mechanic’s shop and the a late night restaurant. Feeling as depressed, dejected and sorry for ourselves as we were, we did not recognize our luck.

In the darkness we could see a dark spot of oil accumulating under the bus. Aurel wondered if the engine somehow still leaking oil (now in a different way than before, just dripping out of the bottom of the bus and leaving a puddle where ever we stopped) was making its way into the clutch and making it slippery enough not to engage properly. That would explain why we were struggling to get up hill but not the mini explosions or the fact that the engine was now just too dead to do anything.

Even the best chicken kebab we’d ever had in Turkey didn’t cheer us up. We sat under the florescent lights of the restaurant in a corner where there was a table set up with two grungy couches as chairs, trading comfort for the annoyance of the TV which was also in the same corner and was blasting a night time Turkish soap opera. We counted days to ourselves—how much time were we losing on our already impossible mission of reaching France by mid June? We wondered silently—how the road high packs a serious punch when you finally stop and feel the strung out sense that stillness is movement and movement is stillness. And we all asked it at some point over dinner in our minds—Who’s idea was this god forsaken trip?

There were two sweet lovely Turkish guys working at the restaurant who brought us extra platefuls of various specialties. They seemed confused when we rolled our eyes collectively at their suggestion that we stay at the hotel in town that only cost 70 lira a night (50 bucks!), and even more confused when we asked if we could sleep in a tent and in the bus in a grassy trash strewn area behind the restaurant. They nodded, having never seen foreigners quite like us. We went out to try to find a spot to pitch the tent where there wasn’t too much broken glass. One of the waiters came out in a few minutes with a tray of complimentar Nescafe, sweet and milky and almost even delicious in context. He showed us a bathroom behind the restaurant which we could easily get to from our make shift camp site and told us that we could stay as long as we’d like.

In the morning, things looked a bit brighter. Behind the mechanic’s shop was a carpenter’s workshop, and next door a bakery. The carpenters came in early and excited by the Combi, banged on the windows and woke Diego up. They greeted him with excited chatter in Turkish (of which he knows less than 3 words) and pulled him over to the bakery where they won him over with kindness, exuberance, real coffee and pastries. By the time Aurel and Molly woke up, the head carpenter was repeatedly slapping Diego on the back and yelling his name for emphasis. We discovered that at least part of his excitement was that the name Diego is also shared by various football (soccer) stars, but the rest of was just a real honest to goodness zest for life and happiness that only Turkish people seem to know how to express.

The mechanics came in next, burning down morning cigarettes and sipping Nescafe from thin plastic cups while they stuck their heads inside the Combi’s engine and chattered. We needed translation, completely lost when one of the mechanics tried to explain what was going on. Luckily our friend from Istanbul, personal savior and as she puts it, the future namesake of our first child (the same one who’s used her Turkish skills to get us out of lots of other trouble), was on hand to translate via cell phone. “There’s some kind of bad cap on some kind of electrical thingy,” she explained. “He’s going to go try to find a replacement. It’s gonna take him about two hours to fix it, just warning ya. The clutch and the oil problem will have to wait til you get to Istanbul and find parts though.”

In technical terms that meant that the cap of the ignition distributor was damaged after 45 years of use and we had to replace it. The mechanic wasn’t able to find a replacement part, but miraculously, yet again, Aurel pulled out his bag of mechanical tricks and somehow found a part in the back of the bus that almost fit. A few modifications and miraculously the mechanic kept his promise of having the bus running in two hours.

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The two carpenters
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Turkish Pide Maker (one of our waiters)

In the end, two hours was just enough time to have a full breakfast at the restaurant with homemade lentil soup and village style Turkish eggs, take black and white pictures of all the characters around us with the Afghan camera, and use the free wireless at the bakery to feel connected to the world again. By noon we were rolling up the onramp to the highway, and by 2pm we were in downtown Kadikoy, our favorite port on the Asian side of our favorite city in Turkey.

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