Vanajeros: Of High Hopes and Busted Engines

It’s been three weeks since the four of us and half the mechanics at the auto shop stared at Sandy’s engine, disassembled and strewn across the oily cement. I looked at the tiny crack in the engine block of our 85 Westfalia; the tiny crack that had the power to bring down an entire vehicle, not to mention our plans to drive the remaining six hour stretch to our destination after almost half a year on the road. Six hours. I’d been in denial about the damage up to this point: it couldn’t be that bad, could it? Even after Sandy lost power and rolled quietly to a stop on that winding Colombian mountain road. I imagined we’d spend a few days in the shop, there’d be a solution that I would pretend to understand (to me, a car is either working or not working), and we’d feel the awesome relief of finally crossing into Ecuador. We eventually did, but not quite like we planned.




The engine that was supposed to last us more than the 12,000 miles it gifted us with simply didn’t. This was always a risk, but having it happen so close to the end of this chapter of the journey was an absolute shock. We weren’t in the clear from calamity. That’s exactly what the engine breaking down was: a wrench not thrown but forcefully tomahawked into our trip. A blown engine would be a bummer for anyone, but when you’re recently graduated college kids and resources are already low, it’s especially bad. For the past five months we’d been creating a photo and video project called Vanajeros, about forging connections with Latin Americans and other travelers by giving away the portraits we made, and documenting van life very thoroughly. On our journey, adventure and vulnerability were front and center, and casting about for an idea of what to do next left us very vulnerable indeed. Our only choice was a tow to the border town of Ipiales.




One of the strangest places to be in limbo is an auto shop. We slept in two different mechanic shops for week long stretches, one in Colombia and one in Ecuador, behind the high, locked, and razor-wired doors that are characteristic of the homes and businesses of Latin America. We drifted in and out during the business day, talking to and bonding with the maestros (shop owners) and other mechanics, but still unsure of our role there: we were the backdrop gringos wandering around and fiddling on their laptops. At 5 pm, everybody went home, and we were left alone in the empty space, everything hard and cold and the complete opposite of comfortable, keys in hand to get in and out, and nowhere in particular to go. The shop was tucked away in its industrial neighborhood, and the fried chicken place up the street caught on to us poaching their wifi. From then on it was all dirty looks cast our way, but in our defense, there’s a cap on how many days in a row a person can eat fried chicken.





After a few days of tinkering, head scratching and fashioning a few parts from beer cans, the mechanics patched up Sandy and told us we’d make the six hour climb to Quito, where there were more parts and mechanics who could give us a more permanent fix. Unbeknownst to us, our future included at least two more tow trucks, and a few strong urges to punch the border officials as they staunchly maintained that the car had to roll into Ecuador on its own, and not on top of our fourth and final tow. We obliged, and I credit nothing less than a higher power that pop-started our van so it could roll, heaving and emitting soul-crushing noises, to the parking lot in front of the officials, 500 meters away (downhill, luckily). After that, the higher power lost interest and we covertly pushed the van out of the parking lot, back to the waiting tow truck.




With the undignified display of Sandy’s engine on the floor of that second shop came a lot of shrugs and timid planning. We had finally made it to Ecuador but our spirits weren’t nearly as high as we imagined they’d be, having arrived in the country we set out for so many miles back. That little crack did a lot of damage and there would be no easy fix; we knew it would be a long time before we’d be back on the road, and that until then, it would feel like a part of our lives was missing. Losing a material possession doesn’t make you any less you, but not having our van had made this time in our trip completely different. Even the identity of our photo and video project had been affected by the absence of our beloved Westy, perhaps especially. We weren’t the traveling van crew anymore, meeting new people constantly and packing up and hauling out on a whim. We were the very stationary van crew, far from our unceremoniously gutted vehicle we left behind in Quito as we headed a bit further south to find an apartment while we wait for a new engine to make its way down from the states.




Besides being in denial about the damage to Sandy, I was possibly in denial that a feeling of powerlessness had found me. I willed myself into a life-changing adventure, sure. But by leaving my home, backpack and wishes in tow, I put myself in the way of more than just the good parts of adventure. I miss the van terribly because I think it should be here with us. The wonderful thing about these experiences, though, is this: to find out how little control you have over what happens can be an immense relief. Suddenly, taking life as it comes to you, day by day, doesn’t feel like such an irresponsible task, but instead a rational thought to live by. And it reminds me of before the van broke down, before the group left Montana, before I even knew I was going on this trip, when the only choice that looked rational was to walk out of the front door, backpack over my shoulder, and not look back.


You can read more about the Vanajero experience at:  From all of us within the Expedition Portal team, we wish the Vanajero crew all the best. If you have any opportunity to assist, please give them a shout. – Christophe Noel, Editor, ExPo.








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The Vanajeros are four young professional photographers and filmmakers, driving a 1985 VW Vanagon Westfalia through Mexico, Central and South America, capturing images of people and places that usually elude tourists and travelers. Read more at: