Days 10 & 11- How I ended up in a van full of heavily armed men

A good friend one more once said that, automotively speaking, when things are running smoother than ever before, things are about to fall apart. That adage holds true for my VW back home, and its appears to be holding true for the Rascal.

I left Erzincan early in the morning, with Tbilisi as my intended destination. It was going to be a long drive, but it would keep me on track as well as give me an opportunity to have the Rascal looked over at the local Suzuki dealership. THe skies were blue, it wasn’t too hot yet, and the Rascal was pulling well up the hills. I had the music turned up and things were looking good.

And then it all fell apart. I crested a hill and began to lose power, Not too bad, but it was noticeable. I thought that perhaps I was facing a tough headwind. But it persisted and I decided to turn around and head back to the last service station I had seen. I figured that, if nothing else, they could call a mechanic. I hit the turnaround and the Rascal died. Luckily the turnaround point was exactly one Rascal wide, and I was able to stay there safely.

A man on a moped stopped. I drew a picture of a wrench on my pad of paper and shrugged. He nodded and pulled out his cel phone. My attempts at non-verbal communication were working! A few minutes later A tractor rumbled up to us and out jumped a young man holding a fistful of wrenches. He handed me one and I realized where my art had failed to communicate. They thought I wanted wrenches. I needed help!

I drew a stick figure of a person next to the wrench and put a plus sign between them. The probe rival lightbulb went on and they both said, “service!” I nodded enthusiastically. Yes! I needed service!!

More phone calls occurred and several conversations ensued. Eventually the older man conveyed that i was to wait there and “service” would come to me. Huzzah! The young man climbed back in his tractor and rumbled off. The older man stuck around for a few minutes before waving goodbye. He nudged his tired old scooter across the highway and disappeared behind one of the dozen or so houses across the way. I wondered how long I would be there, and how I would recognize the “service” when he arrived.

Several vehicle approached over the ensuing minutes, but none of them stopped. I was just settling in for a good long wait when, about twenty minutes in, a taxi pulled up. Out hopped a tall, thin man with a bushy mustache, and a shorter, bald man holding a fistful of wrenches. They both came over to me. The tall man extended his hand, the shorter man just pushed by me to see the Rascal. The shorter man quickly ascertained that this was not going to be repaired in the turnaround of a highway. He spoke a few words to the other man and it was made clear to me that the taxi was going to be my tow truck.

We turned the Rascal around so it was facing down a narrow side road and lined it up behind the taxi. The tow rope I purchased in England was uncoiled and attached to the two vehicles. To say it was short would be an understatement. I could have used the Rascal as a pillow and comfortably propped my feet up on the taxi. It took all my concentration to follow as the taxi driver booked and weaved along the narrow road, avoiding the worst of the potholes.

Fifteen minutes later I was deposited among a series of garages, each appertaining to some aspect of automotive work. There was the short man’s garage next to the tire shop. Across the way was the auto supply shop. Around the corner was the welder. Another shop was assembling a trailer to be towed behind a tractor. It was a one stop location! The only thing missing was anyone who spoke any English. Everything was going to have to be done with hand gestures and pictures.

The short man assessed the Rascal for a bit, before getting to work. He determined that the plugs were fouled. He was going to just polish them up a bit, but I handed him four I was carrying and he dutifully put them in. I also took the opportunity to replace the air filter.

All of this came to a grand total of $14. Since I had intended to have the Rascal looked at in Tbilisi anyway, I figured I would just have this guy do the work. I motioned for him to change the oil and check the brakes.

The oil came out looking like chocolate milk and we all knew there was a problem.

I had blown the head gasket.

He began to shake his head and indicate that there were no head gaskets. Feeling pretty smug, I reached into the Rascal and pulled out the gasket set I was carrying. He got right to work. The only time he would stop or look up was to bark at someone who would appear, take me by the arm, and guide me to whatever shop was having tea at that moment. Six hours later I had a running Rascal! I was overjoyed! The grand total came to $87 for oil and labor. I left a generous tip and was back on the road.

It didn’t take long for things to unravel.

I noticed that the Rascal did not have much power, plus it was running warm. I stopped off for gas, called Michelle, and told her that I was going to try to get to Tbilisi the next day and get it looked at again. Twenty miles later the Rascal was dead. I was cruising down the back side of a mountain pass when the oil pressure light went on.

Smoke started billowing into the cabin the moment I stopped. I popped open the hatch to check the oil. It was bone dry! Had the little mechanic forgotten to put oil in?!?! I was furious! I had just gotten the Rascal repaired, and now this?!?!

Darkness was settling in. I was on a winding stretch of highway and did not feel comfortable walking the few kilometers back up the road to a service station. I pushed the Rascal back into a turnout near a dry riverbed and decided to call it a night. I was a bit nervous. At least one other team on the Rally had a scary situation camping in Turkey. Their car was surrounded by five men, shouting. There may or may not have been a knife. I was out in the middle of nowhere and was worried that I might have the same issue. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was nervous. A lone trucker stopped about a hundred yards down the road. I decided to go see if either he had oil or if I could bum a ride up the road a few kilometers. The moment he saw me trying to get his attention, he sped off.

The next morning I was up with the light at 4:45. I wanted to get an early start walking. I did not know exactly how far up the road the last service station was, and I wanted to beat the Turkish heat. About 45 minutes later I spotted a gas station. A true oasis, it offered gas, a restaurant, a car wash,a bathroom, and a mosque. Everything the Turkish traveler could want!

I found three liters of oil, some water, and a snack. It was just the right amount of oil, which was good. It was the only oil they had in my viscosity. As I walked back to the Rascal I had a head full of nightmares: The Rascal would be stolen. The Rascal would be broken in to. The rascal would not start. I heaved a sigh of relief when I rounded the corner and it was still there.

I poured the oil into the engine and crossed my fingers. It started! I let the Rascal run for a bit to get the oil circulating. It was still running a bit warm, but I figured that it was still within normal ranges, so I should be ok. There was a disconcerting amount of white smoke coming from the tailpipe, but it was running! The rest could get sorted out along the way!

I hopped in and headed down the road. I had to have the windows open because the smoke was starting to fill the cabin. Annoying, but not a deal breaker. The Rascal was running well and the temperature gauge was not climbing. Five minutes later the oil light came back on.

Once again I pulled over. I checked the dipstick and once again the engine was bone dry! I cursed. I swore. I kicked the tires. Yes. I threw a temper tantrum by the side of the road in Turkey.

I had passed a road construction site a kilometer or so up the road. I grabbed my paper and pen and went for a walk. Two young guys were getting ready to cut some metal from a barrier with an acetylene torch. I had seen one of them using a cell phone as I had been approaching, so I knew he could help.

I showed him and his friend the picture of the wrench and the stick figure. I had written the word “service” below them. The looked at me. I was going to have to do better. I drew a picture of the Rascal and pointed down the road. Next to it I wrote “1 km”. There were nods. I then crossed out the Rascal and naked a breaking noise. More nods. Then I drew a cell phone inside a circle with a slash. Then I pointed to the guy with the phone, the wrench and the stick figure.

Some words were said. More people came over. The phone was not being dialed. I drew a picture of the Rascal again being towed. Then the phone. Then the wrench and stick figure.

There was more nodding. The guy with the phone asked me something that sounded like “police”. I nodded. Yes, the police would be just fine. They could help get me sorted out.

Out came the phone.

A few minutes later a blue van pulled up and out climbed six men dressed in fatigues, carrying assault rifles. I thought that this was a bit much for a simple breakdown. I had assumed they would send someone (who spoke some English) and they would help call me a tow truck. After a few minutes of speaking in Turkish, I was bundled into the van and taken back up the road, away from the Rascal. They were taking me to headquarters!

When we pulled into the parking lot, we all got out. More words were said and several people pulled out cell phones and started Googling. I could make out the words Suzuki (I had told them it was a Suzuki) and the names of some nearby towns. Eventually the leader of the group looked up at me, and in very good English asked, “Why did you not go with your vehicle?”

Then it dawned on drawings had not translated to “Please help me call a tow truck.” They had translated to “A tow truck came and stole my vehicle, please call the police!” No wonder they showed up ready for action! They were going to go get my vehicle back!

I explained that no one had stolen the vehicle. It was just around the bend from where they had found me. We all had a good laugh, bundled back up into the police van and went to have a look at the Rascal. It was a little disconcerting being surrounded by machine guns while I hooked it up to a pickup, but at least they were not pointing at me!

They towed me back to headquarters. They were doing some calling and thought they had found someone about 10 kilometers up the road who could repair the Rascal. But before we could leave, we had to have tea. I have noticed that everything in Turkey revolves around tea. There is no set time for tea. It happens throughout the day. But, when tea is poured, everyone sits around and has a chat and a smoke. Nothing else gets accomplished when there is tea.

The tea drunk, we all got back in our vehicles and drove the 10 kilometers up the road. The mechanic took one look at the Rascal’s engine and started yelling at me! Hr thought I had dumped the oil in the radiator instead of the engine! I assured him that I had put the oil in the correct place! He then threw up his hands and said there was nothing he could do. I’m not sure who was more surprised, me or the Turkish police officer who had assured me this was the guy to see!

Some heated words were exchanged in Turkish. Cell phones came out and more numbers were dialed. The closest Suzuki dealership was another 50 kilometers in the direction I had come from. But they wold not work on the was too old. More phone calls were made. Eventually they found someone who would tow me to the city and someone else who would swap my broken engine for the spare I was carrying. I had hoped to hold off on swapping engines until at least a country that ended in -stan. But, if this was the only solution that would get me going, I would take it.

An hour later a flatbed tow truck arrived. The Rascal was loaded onto the truck and we were on our way. AS we passed the places I had been the day before, I had to keep reminding myself that sometimes you have to take a step back in order to go forward. Easy when it is academic. Much more difficult when you are facing the prospect of missing Visa windows.

Once we were in Erzurum, I was deposited in front of a smal shop that had photos of Japanese cars on the sign. There was a lot of discussion and hand gestures between me, the mechanic, and the tow truck driver. Eventually the tow truck driver left and the mechanic and I went down the street to see his friend who could translate for us.

It turns out that the mechanic is a diesel mechanic. He can swap the engine, but he is not able to work on it. The translator (an older man who said he has known the mechanic since he was a boy) assured me that, if the mechanic could not get the car working he would a: not charge me and b: bring in a mechanic who could. While having a diesel mechanic work on a gasoline engine is not my first choice, I was kind of stuck without options. The tow truck driver was long gone and I couldn’t exactly go knocking on doors.

The mechanic and his young assistant got to work right away. I was sent to the back of the garage where I could type this entry, read my book, and entertain the mechanic's five year old son. In other words, stay out of the way!! After a few hours I was famished. I had been up since 4:45 and had consumed a cup of tea and a gas station croissant. Not enough to keep me going. The next time the mechanic came back, I mimed food and then shrugged my shoulders. He gestured for me to I did. Ten minutes later we were in his car and heading to his favorite restaurant. We ate a delicious beef stew, mopped up with bread. I was glad the bread was there or else I would have been licking the plate! After a cup of tea, we were back to the garage and he was back at it.

An hour or so later, the translator showed up. The mechanic had made a discovery: my thermostat was blown. That was what was causing my problems. While i had a lot of spares, a thermostat was not one of them. So a new thermostat was sourced, the radiator was flushed, and he went back to swapping the engines.

At 8:30 pm the Rascal roared back to life! By this time there were four people working on it, and another three in the shop with me. They rotated in and out, wrenching, kibitzing, holding flashlights, and drinking lots of tea. Once again the Rascal had become a focal point for the community and everyone wanted to stop by and have a look at the little vehicle and the madman who was driving it to Russia.

Even though the mechanic had promised me he would complete the job by tonight, it was getting late. I assured him it would be ok if we waited until morning. So I am tucked in at a hotel. Tomorrow, insha Allah, I’ll be back on the road.

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