Monthly Archives: March 2020

South America by Subaru 20/02/13 – Car trouble!

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Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2020/03/08/south-america-by-subaru-20-02-12-i-see-rare-golden-lion-tamarins/

After a moderate breakfast, I enjoy my beachfront balcony room until checkout time.

Oceanfront hotel room in Farol de São Thomé
Oceanfront hotel room in Farol de São Thomé

Then I head inland on what I quickly see is the main road, im much better condition than the way I entered yesterday. Just out of town, I pass the airport and have yesterday’s conjecture regarding offshore oil confirmed. The airport is primarily a large helicopter base owned by Petrobras, the national oil company. The gate is crowded with workers lined up to enter and on the other side of the chain link fence, several large passenger helicopters are loading and then taking off oceanward headed for drilling platforms.

Petrobras workers at heliport.
Petrobras workers at heliport.
Petrobras offshore rig helicopters
Petrobras offshore rig helicopters

On my first visit to Brasil in 1984, the nation had microscopic oil reserves. The military government had messed up the economy, inflation was rampant, and Brasil had no foreign exchange for imports. As a result, everything was home grown. Volkswagen was building Beetles domestically and in lieu of gasoline, everything was fueled with ethanol, which was produced from Brasil’s plentiful sugar cane crop. This forced self reliance seemed to have some positive effect, preventing the excesses of consumerism being encouraged elsewhere by rising imports from Asia. Of course, the populace wasn’t happy with enforced economic constraints. After decades of military dictatorship, the generals were now so tired of being blamed for the economy they were taking the drastic step of handing the government back to civilians. Imagine how bad things were if the dictators said, “I want out.”

I think it’s fair to say plentiful oil almost ruined Brasil. Petrobras was formed back in 1953 as the sovereign oil company but they had little to work with until offshore oil was discovered in 1974. Even then, financing and technology limitations, and the extraordinary ocean depths where the oil was found kept offshore development at a slow pace. It took over 30 years, but finally in 2006, Brasil reached oil self-sufficiency and Petrobras started being flush with cash. That’s when corruption started going wild. Politicians and Petrobras officials received ever increasing bribes from contractors for accepting overpriced bids and embezzled even more from the company. By the time serious investigations got underway in 2013, the total looting was estimated as high as US$13 billion. Three presidents and countless other politicians have been ensnared. Complicating things are plausible accusations that the crusading investigative judge who dug into the case was politically biased and used the prosecution to fulfill his aims. He is now the Brasilian Minister of Justice. The pervasive corruption that came to light eventually put Jair Bolsonaro, known derisively by his many non-supporters as “Trump of the Tropics”, into the presidency.

I’m heading for the next Brasilian state north up the coast, Espiritu Santu. I have invitations from two Couchsurfing hosts, one in the capital, Vitoria, and one in a beach town on the way there, Guaraparí. I’ve told the latter one, Micaela, that I’ll be there today. My plan is to continue trundling slowly up the coast on small, possibly impassable, roads and arrive by evening.

That plan is about to change. Shortly after the airport, as I accelerate to pass a large truck, I notice the tachometer needle acting strangely. A few tests yield a disturbing result: when I press hard on the gas pedal, the engine races even though the speed of the car is unchanged. This is proof positive that the clutch is slipping and will shortly fail. When it does, I’ll be stranded on the road, unable to move.

I don’t know how the Subaru was treated for its first 100,000 miles, but I do know the 50,000 I’ve put on it so far have been hard ones. At least half of those have been on mud, gravel, sand, snow, and mountain roads, not to mention the tens of thousands of speed bumps, nicknamed “donkey backs” or similar, used throughout South America in lieu of police speed enforcement. While I appreciate not having to keep my eyes constantly peeled for speed traps, every single hump requires a downshift, braking to near zero speed, two big bounces, and then an acceleration through the gears again on the other side. In addition to the other road stresses, this amounts to a lot of brake, suspension, and transmission wear.

My point is that it’s entirely reasonable that the clutch needs replacement. This doesn’t make it any less of a problem. In Chile, where I bought the car. Subarus are quite common, mechanics are used to them, and parts are usually available. Argentina and Uruguay have no Subaru presence at all. To allay this problem, I’ve carried brake shoes and oil filters with me. When I did something stupid in Argentina a few months ago it required 3-days and a 16 hour round trip to Chile to fetch the needed part. So I’ve been thankful that the Subaru has been so reliable and there haven’t been any further parts crises.

Brasil, by contrast, has Subaru dealers, so I thought getting parts would be easier. To my dismay, though, I haven’t noticed one other Subaru on the roads here in almost 3 months. I don’t know who’s buying them in Brasil but they’re keeping them pretty well hidden. When I stopped at a dealer in Rio de Janeiro to buy one non-critical part, it took an hour of searching to find out they didn’t have it — but they said if I hung around for two weeks, they could get it from Japan.

Now I’m concerned. Finding a replacement clutch disk could be a big problem. My tests show the clutch only slips noticeably if I step fairly hard on the gas, so with conservative driving, it could last for weeks before complete failure. Since this approach means no back roads, no steep mountains… no fun, I want to handle the repair quickly. The ride to Guaraparí is now constrained to the main toll highway.

I arrive in the evening to be welcomed by Micaela, husband Fabricio, little son Henrique, and Micaela’s mother. There’s also another Couchsurfer from remote western Brasil staying in their big house. Everyone’s very friendly, but the dinner table conversation is in rapid fire Portuguese, leaving me behind a lot of the time. In this case, that’s not as frustrating as usual because I’m pondering how to proceed on the repair. Tomorrow is Friday, and after that everything grinds to a halt for the weekend, so I need to work fast.

I retire early to my room and text my next host in the capital to ask if he knows any competent mechanics. He suggests a shop where he has his repairs done. Given the potential parts difficulties, I decide to forego custom and leave in the morning after just one night. This carries the danger of looking like a freeloader rather than a sincere guest, but I feel compelled to risk it.

South America by Subaru 20/02/12 – I see rare golden lion tamarins!

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I’m up early at Fazenda dos Cordeiros because this morning I’m going into the field to see the golden lion tamarin (mico leão dourado). I’m packed and out of my room in plenty of time, walk the few steps to the main house, and find a sumptuous breakfast awaiting — almost everything homemade or homegrown.

Breakfast at Fazenda dos Cordeiros
Breakfast at Fazenda dos Cordeiros

After a leisurely meal with Ana Beatriz and her family, I make the 10 minute drive back down the road to the Golden Lion Tamarin Association’s (AMLD) private reserve. Already gearing up as I arrive are several AMLD staff members and a two-person Swedish news crew. They are the reason today’s excursion is open to me. Normally a group less than four is charged a substantial minimum fee. I don’t know if AMLD waived the fee for the Swedes or if their network anted up, but I’m only paying the normal per person charge.

Swedish news crew
Swedish news crew

We set off into the woods and fields with a staff member leading the way holding a radio tracking antenna.

Tracking collared tamarins
Tracking collared tamarins

AMLD has collared at least one member of each family group so they can be more easily monitored. After a fruitless initial steep and slippery climb through the forest, we turn back and head for other wooded areas across a very wet former pasture.

Slogging through soggy ex-pasture.

At the far end of the property one or two tamarins (micos) appear. Another staff member places a bunch of bananas in the crotch of a tree and within ten minutes, we are surrounded by dozens of bright orange micos, opening bananas, staring down at us, and lolling on branches just above our heads. It’s an incredibly intimate encounter and all three of the guests are awestruck by their beauty and behavior. The Swedish producer and cameraperson stick with their work, filming the micos constantly. I discover to my dismay that something is wrong with my camera, probably some errant setting, that is putting a bluish cast over every photo and preventing proper focus. Because of intermittent rain (I have the camera protected with a plastic bag) and the short time we have with the micos, I decide not to start a research project on the failures. Instead I shoot the best I can with both camera and phone. After all, seeing the micos is the unique adventure. Even without many photographs, I’m still having the experience.

Golden lion tamarin
Golden lion tamarin
Golden lion tamarin
Tamarin banana frenzy

After a half hour or so, we leave the micos to their meal and the Swedes film some interviews with the staff. Then we all go sloshing back across the soggy fields to the road. The producer tells me the two of them, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, cover South America for Sweden’s main evening news program and that this day’s work will probably be presented as a 3 minute story. By 11 AM or so, we’re all taking off in different directions, mission accomplished.

Still awestruck from seeing such unique animals up close, it takes an effort of will to focus on my driving. My tentative goal for today is a hostel in a coastal town, but thanks to today’s early start and the muddy roads keeping me on the toll highways, I get there much too early in the day to consider stopping yet. Just beyond the town is Jurubatiba, a coastal national park that, on the map at least, looks like an interesting area with a remote beach road. There’s one park entrance near me, but it turns out to be a stub road used only for local beach access. The map shows a few routes to the longer through road along the beach, so I work my way around to the first of these. Leaving the highway on small, sand roads, I know the chances of having to turn back are substantial. Sure enough, the muddy stretches get worse until I face one that I don’t want to risk and pull one of my “am I going to make it” U-turns and blast my way uphill back to the highway. The second access still beckons so I try that one. Less mud this time, but I’m clearly going through ranch property.

The shortcuts are too risky in the rain.

After dodging farm equipment on the one lane road, I reach, about 3 miles in, a locked ranch gate. Another backtrack to the highway and when I pass the third mapped access, I don’t even try it. The car, as usual on days like this, is completely covered in dried mud and looks like something out of a trans-Africa road rally.

I progress up the coast on slightly more reliable roads until it gets to the hour where I want to stop for the day. My route goes through a small beach strip town, were I’m confident I’ll find affordable lodging. Shortly before I arrive, my vaguely paved route turns into a sand dune and a detour sign forces me inland on an obviously provisional road. Apparently an ocean storm destroyed a long stretch of the original highway. The detour is really primitive and finally deposits me in a substantial community arrayed along the beach. Clearly, the way I entered cannot be the main access to a town of this size.

I find another amazingly good value, US$16 for a big, modern room with air conditioning and a large balcony overlooking the ocean beach.

Great hotel value in Farol do São Thomé
Great hotel value in Farol do São Thomé

I go back out to sightsee and notice a fleet of fishing boats, quite large. Rather than being docked in a harbor, they’re all beached high up on the sand. By their haphazard arrangement, I conclude that each must have been hauled out of the surf by heavy equipment.

Farol do São Thomé boat "harbpr".
Farol do São Thomé boat “harbor”.
Farol do São Thomé boat "harbpr".
Farol do São Thomé boat “harbpr”.

Getting them into the water again must be quite an operation as there seems no option but to shove them with brute force back down the steep sandy beach into a substantial breaking surf. This seems like it would be a technique of last resort. I’ve seen beach based fishing elsewhere, but only with smaller boats that can be muscled around with 2-6 people. That technique won’t work here.

Along the beachfront road, fisherman are processing their day’s catch in what look like simple cooperative facilities, little more than shade, work table, and running water. The men and women are gutting, filleting, and packing in ice.

Fish processing at Farol do São Thomé
Fish processing at Farol do São Thom

Anywhere where there’s commercial fishing, ice vending is a major occupation and I see signs advertising “gelo” all over town. As the afternoon latens, large passenger helicopters start coming in from the ocean. At first I think “military” but it dawns on me that this is the region where oil was discovered in the 1990s so there must be offshore rigs over the horizon.

Offshore oil rig commuting
Offshore oil rig commuting

I walk around town looking for decent food but it’s afternoon so most restaurants are closed. If I’m going to eat something other than Brasilian pizza, Brasilian hamburger, or Brasilian pastry, I have to wait several hours. I go back to the room, crank up the air conditioner, and attempt to read. As always, I’m out in ten minutes and the next time I wake, it’s midnight and all the restaurants are closed. Well, breakfast will be available downstairs soon enough.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2020/03/09/south-america-by-subaru-20-02-13-car-trouble/