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Biodiesel Diaries III: South America

'I had time to wonder, "Is this car going to stop rolling? Are we rolling off of a cliff?"'

By Novella Carpenter

We left off last week wondering how our heroes, David, Mali and Emilio would get across the Darien gap, the 54-mile impassable portion of the Pan-American Highway. The answer turned out to be to put the car on a ship, then fly to meet the ship in Quito, Ecuador. Note to potential cross-continent road trippers: bring bribes.

"The system now is supposedly bribe-free, but what you actually have to do is pay an ayudante (helper) about $300 to do the paperwork for you. The ayudante spreads the bribes around. But we don't pay folks like that and had confrontations and arguments all the way around. It was a disaster." It took them five full haggling days to get the car back.

They finally got their car with the provision that they must drive directly to Peru with an Ecuadorian soldier. It took seven hours to get to Peru: "By that point we were beyond reason, and it was all funny. We argued with everyone in offices, made spectacles and let everyone we met with know what a sorry state of bureaucracy they participated in."

Now the only barriers between them and Argentina were ... the Central Andes and Lake Titicaca. David posted: "Uh-oh! Well, we made it over the pass to Lake Titicaca, 14,500 feet. We noticed that it did climb a bit better on diesel, and we descended and crossed the plateaus with veggie oil. But by the time we descended into Puno, after five hours of driving (10,000 feet), the car was pretty bad: weak, chugging and smoking, absolutely billowing black, gray and whitish smoke." Because they had to, they found Dionicius, a genius diesel mechanic, who cleaned the carbon-choked injectors, then discovered the piston rings were broken. David then spent the next week finding parts. David wrote: "Repairing this car is a full-time job. The shop is located on the end of a road that follows the shore of Lake Titicaca. The road is full of auto shops. Every time we need a part, I have to hop on a trike [taxi] and ride to the part of town, 1 kilometer away, where the parts shops are. Every ride costs about 60 cents, and we are pumping a lot of money into the trike economy!"

Finally, they "all climbed on top of the car and lowered the engine block back into the car with thick ropes. The young mechanics at the shop had cleaned every inch of the motor with kerosene--it was shining!"

Soon enough, the three were back on the road again. David then posted this chilling chronicle: "As we left the village, Mali was driving, Emilio sleeping, as we climbed past cactus and agarrobina, I opened a soda. It exploded, spraying orange soda everywhere. Mali and I scrambled to mop up the mess, and in the confusion, the car swerved hard. The car crunched into the steep rocky side of the road. Then the car began to roll down the hill. ... We were upside-down and still moving, a horrible slow crunching sound, and things were moving in that slow-motion way, and I had time to wonder, 'Is this car going to stop rolling? Are we rolling off of a cliff?'"

Amazingly, no one was injured. The car came to rest in a ravine, cushioned by cactus. An entire village came out to help push the car out of the ravine. A few days later, they zoomed triumphantly into Rosario, Argentina, thus ending one hell of an epic journey.

The final tally:
Total Distance: 10,189 miles
Total Amount of Fuel: 100 gallons new veggie oil; 217 gallons used veggie oil; 23 gallons of biodiesel from Oakland, Tucson and Cochabamba, Bolivia; 113 gallons diesel
Filters: Five fuel filters; 11 plastic fuel pre-filters; six 10-micron sock filters; 25 paper filters
Miscellaneous: 1 gallon of white gas used to heat the veggie oil; two sets of new tires

To read all of David's posts, go to http://biodiesel.infopop.cc. Email Novella at [email protected]

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From the July 21-28, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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